The Language of Autism: “Special Interest” as a Stigmatizing Phrase

When an a non-autistic person studies something deeply, it’s an “area of expertise,” and the acquisition of such expertise is considered a commendable accomplishment. When an autistic person studies something deeply, it’s a “special interest,” and it’s considered a symptom of pathology.

Nick Walker

Nick’s post on Facebook really hit home for me, because, not long ago, I had been involved in an exchange about this very topic.

It’s hard to express how infantilizing and degrading it feels to hear the phrase “special interest” in connection with autistic behavior. I’m now in my eighth decade on this planet, so the term is not often applied to me; nevertheless, I cringe whenever I hear it. And I recently had an experience in which I was asked to describe my “special interests” — I can’t even…

I received a query from a local professional organization as to whether I would be willing to do an interview with a writer for a prominent national magazine. My understanding was that the reporter was interested in gathering information from autistic people with a variety of interests.

In an email to the writer, I expressed my willingness to be interviewed, and I provided quite a bit of background information about myself, hoping that would make the interview process go more quickly and smoothly.

In response, I received a form letter, with 5 questions. The first one was “tell me about yourself” and included items that I had already fully answered. The other 4 questions were about my purported “special interests.”

Naturally (as you will surmise, I suspect, if you are autistic), this got my dander up. Instead of answering the questions, I sent back a short essay about why I find the term “special interests” to be objectionable. I’ll summarize some of the points here, and expand on others. This list is not the response I gave, but it contains the essence of my essay. Some things to think about. In all of this, please keep in mind that I know that a lot of what I say is speculative, and I realize that I speak only for myself, not for anyone else, let alone autistic people as a group. We are just as varied among ourselves as neurotypical people are.

That said, here are my thoughts:

  • What is it about an autistic person’s interests that make them “special”? Why are not the interests of neurotypical people “special”? What do you call an interest that is not “special”?
  • The request struck me as asking me to make fun of myself. As if having a deep interest in something was in fact odd, and amusing, much as one would humor or demean a person who collects worthless objects of some kind. All of this brought to mind the phrase coined by Jim Sinclair, an early pioneer of autism self-advocacy.
  • We are not “self-narrating zoo exhibits

  • If a young autistic person, such as my friend Tim Page, has a deep interest in music, is that a “special” interest? What do you call it when his knowledge of and love for music leads him into a career as a music critic, for which he is awarded a Pulitzer Prize?
  • What do you call the interest that a kid had in ants that led him to spend all of his free time exploring the woods, turning over rotten logs, and studying ant colonies? What do you call it when he becomes a professor at Harvard and the world’s foremost authority on ants? And one of the world’s foremost authorities on evolutionary biology and environmentalism? I’m talking, of course, about Edward O. Wilson. I don’t know if he’s autistic, although I’d guess so, but does it really matter? He is certainly one of my heroes, autistic or not. I have only met him once, and did not have enough time with him to form an opinion of his neurological status, but I do find it telling that he was the one to solve the social insect problem that plagued Darwin and caused him to delay publication of his theory of natural selection. And I’m quite sure that Darwin must have been autistic. Another likely autistic was a famous person born on the same day as Darwin. Abraham Lincoln‘s self-description is about as good an explanation of how the autistic brain works as I’ve ever seen.
  • I am slow to learn and slow to forget that which I have learned. My mind is like a piece of steel; very hard to scratch anything on it and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out.

  • What do you call an interest in baseball that is so intense that it leads a person to neglect personal relationships? What do you call it when that interest becomes an obsession with being the best hitter of all time? And what do you call it when he makes that happen? Again, I don’t know if Ted Williams was autistic, but all the signs are there. Again, I could ask, does it matter? But maybe it does. Maybe the question is, could this have been achieved by a person who was not autistic?
  • What about Tesla, and Jefferson, and Einstein, and countless other (presumed) autistic people whose interests led to wonderful discoveries? Many pioneers in mathematics likely were autistic. Newton and Turing, to name the obvious. I’m not sure if the brilliant Pascal was autistic, but his interest in a gambling problem led to the groundwork upon which probability theory (statistics) was built.
  • What, in general, was the role of autistic people in history? We are known for our ability to recognize patterns (and deviations from patterns). My friend John Robison has speculated that autistics might have made up the priestly castes in ancient cultures; the ones who noticed the patterns of the sky and the seasons, and invented calendars and astronomy. They kept the records of floods and growing seasons, and made civilization possible. More recently, he has written about the possibility that early Pacific Ocean navigators were autistic.
  • The list goes on. My Hall of Fame grows.

Much of this is speculative, of course. Not every innovative person is autistic. And not every autistic person produces world-changing discoveries. Many autistic people who have focused interests may pursue them simply because they are satisfying in some way. Some may produce innovations that benefit only themselves or a few people around them. Some neurotypical people may have obsessive, focused interests that rival those of the most intense autistic people. Some autistic people may not have any obvious such interests. The world is as varied as the number of people in it. And thank goodness for that!

Please drop the modifier “special” when talking about the interests of autistic people. We know we’re different. We are aware of that; it is an awareness that is deep in our souls, from our earliest days of self-awareness, if my own experience is any guide. We want to be proud of our achievements, based on what we accomplish. Not as autistic people, but as people. Thank you.

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