When you catch a glimpse of your potential, that’s when passion is born.
— Zig Ziglar
Photo by JESHOOTS.com
In autism, one of the diagnostic criteria is to have “Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus”, with “Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, restricted to sharing of interests”. While this may sound like an affliction, it actually means that autistics will likely have a ‘special interest’ at expertise level.
I understand that some autistics hate the label ‘special interest’ as they feel this too narrowly defines their passions. I am using the term in this blog post to indicate that which you love to be involved in; that thing which makes your heart sing, which you know a lot about, and enjoy very much. For me it is: research (any topic), gardening, colour-matching, and teddy bears.
Benefits of cultivating a ‘special interest’
The obsession autistics have with their ‘special interest(s)’ means that they, unlike typical individuals, will quickly become experts in their chosen fields. They will spend hours researching, reading, immersing and involving themselves in this interest, even at the expense of other tasks. Yes, not eating because you’ve hyperfocused on researching your interest may sound bad… but it also highlights incredible FORTITUDE, which is a unique and amazing quality to have.
There are 3 main benefits of having a ‘special interest’–
Expertise — Your dedication to your chosen ‘special interest’ shows determination and focus. You are an expert in your topic.
Sharing — Your focus on your ‘special interest’ means you can make friends with others also fascinated by that topic.
Connection — Your passion towards your ‘special interest’ can be harnessed for internships, employment, or options for volunteering.
Having a ‘special interest’ in something can have a positive impact on social interactions and friendships (as you can find others with the same interest and connect over that) AND they can be marketable skills.
If you adore butterflies and moths (lepidoptera, for those playing at home), you study butterflies, read about butterflies, seek out butterflies, and talk about butterflies, you will have immense knowledge of butterflies. While not all people will appreciate butterflies as much as you do, there are some who will. For example– museums, zoos, scientific institutes, research centres and academic conferences– at these places, people will love you and respect you for your love of butterflies.
How to reach others with your ‘special interest’
Having a passion for something is great, but you must get yourself out there, and let people know! Perhaps you have talked to your family and friends already and feel a bit dejected that they are not as passionate as you… but fear not! Here are some other ways to reach people:
Start a blog chronicling your interests, and post a link to the blog on social media
Write articles on your special interest, and submit them to your local paper or autism organization (include a note to the editor when you do this)
Study your interest formally, by going to college or university
Volunteer in the area of your interest (search online to find groups or businesses near you)
Add your special interest to your resume, with a blurb about your research into the topic, how long you’ve been researching it, and why it inspires you
Create your own magazine, e-zine, or website dedicated to your ‘special interest’
Start a business (or charity) to sell your expertise, or immerse yourself in the topic while also giving to others
Visit conferences dedicated to your special interest, so you can talk to researchers in the field, share your knowledge, and learn more
Seek out jobs that embody your ‘special interest’ and apply for roles
Attend social groups associated with your interest, or start your own
Post on forums or reddit, and discuss your interest with others
Whether your passion is butterflies, IT, trains, classical Latin, neuropsychology, dogs, Minecraft, colour-matching, knitting, electric cars, or even 15th century buttons, there is always a place for you in the world. Your ‘special interest’ matters!
I highly recommend autistics to see themselves not as afflicted by “restricted interests”, but to be inspired in their expertise and connect. There are others out in the world who will embrace your knowledge and thank you for sharing 🙂
It totally sucks, being a minority. No matter what brilliance you have to offer, most often you are left in stigmatization. You’re different, so you’re rejected. We like to tell kids that difference is special and uniqueness matters, but just have a quick look at our world — read the news — and you’ll see, humans still attack each other over difference.
The majority perspective is the “normal” perspective. This is the basis of our modern world: positivist, concrete, systematic, precise, ordered, categorized. While this way of understanding the world has many benefits, it also creates notions of dysfunction (normal vs. abnormal) and behaviours of judgment (acceptance vs. rejection).
If you’re not normal, you’re Wrong.
If you’re not normal, you’re Ostracized.
If you’re not normal, you’re the Minority.
A Gifted Minority
What do I mean by gifted? Well, a definition is: ‘individuals whose skills or talents exceed above-average levels of human performance’. Giftedness is usually correlated with IQ scores (130+), but giftedness can also belie artistic brilliance or talent.
I have gifted talent. My IQ is 143, and I’m a polymath… that is — I don’t really find anything difficult to learn or comprehend. I learn very quickly, and while there are subjects I don’t particularly like, I can do them… and I can do them well. As such, I study always, research everything and I just know a lot about a lot of intersecting things!
So, what are the challenges? Well, most significantly, I think the problem is the majority. That is, here you are in a world which is largely populated with people who are less intelligent than you, less capable than you, and less able to comprehend your complex thoughts. As such, any interaction with the majority is… well… difficult.
An Autistic Minority
Autism is a neurological divergence in typical development. Some areas of functioning may be inhibited, and other areas enhanced. Every autistic person is different, and they experience their autism differently.
I am autistic. So, my way of understanding the world is atypical. What are my challenges? Well, I have executive functioning issues which makes it difficult (at times) to make decisions, I have dyslexia (though I am hypervigilant to try to notice errors and fix it), I may misunderstand a joke, taking someone literally when they were being metaphorical (or interpret something metaphorically, when they were being literal) — that’s always fun! *sarcasm* Yes, I often feel puzzled about social interaction, I collect plushies, and I need sensory soothing objects to bring me peace when the world seems all too overwhelming.
Usually people don’t SEE my struggle because I have learned to mask it. When I am out in public, I spend a great deal of energy pretending to be normal, to fit in, to give an impression of “belonging”. But you know, it’s tiring. It’s utterly exhausting to pretend.
And sometimes, when I’m out in public, I just can’t pretend anymore and that’s when people do see my struggles. I try VERY hard to make sure no-one ever sees my autism. Why? Because when they see me this way, I am treated as if I am stupid or crazy.
I find this is SO much worse when you’re actually gifted and intelligent but you’re treated (by people who lack intelligence) like you’re the one with the problem!! WTF?!
Being different is really hard…Growing up, I was aware that I was totally different to others, with a reasonably high IQ (which, by the way, relative to my family is quite low), but completely unaware of being autistic. Arguably we all exist in this state of “unawareness” of our divergence from the norm until we encounter the norm! In full disclosure, I was identified (by a professional) as autistic in 2015 and I received my official piece of paper ‘proving it’ in 2017 (diagnosis). My point is, as a child and as a teen, and for a giant chunk of my adult life, I was unaware of my autism. Although I had incredible talent, I knew I was bright and capable, I always felt as though I was defective in some way. I didn’t fit in, I doubted myself, and I suffered quite a lot.Something I have noticed since ‘coming out’ as autistic is the prevalence of stigma and discrimination from others. Yes, I have talked about this before on other forums, but I want to express the importance of how it feels to be on the receiving end of some of this stuff. Hearing these comments (even when directed at other autistics) is upsetting. It is part of the struggle, because, well — I care.
When describing my experience as an autistic —
COMMON RESPONSE: You are wrong. I know better.
“No, that’s not autism. You’re just anti-social and rude”
“You don’t have any empathy, do you?”
“It’s called ‘introverted’ — not autistic”
“You’re just not trying hard enough”
“You can’t stick to anything. You’re just too scattered. You can’t do anything.”
I probably don’t need to tell you that hearing these things hurt. Not only are people who speak to me demonstrating their complete and utter lack of awareness of autism, but these statements also place my experience and my identity in the realm of “not recognized” and “not worthy”.
Another struggle I experience is that people seem unable to comprehend what I can and can’t do. This is not an issue limited to being gifted and autistic. I’d argue individuals with a variety of disabilities experience this.So often I hear disparaging comments when I am trying to shine, when I have an idea, when I share my abilities, when I talk about theoretical possibilities. In the academic realm, I do have small groups of people who believe in me and who value my unique perspectives. But, alas, in other areas — especially in job seeking — I find people’s small-mindedness ever present.
When describing my gifted ability and my talents—
COMMON RESPONSE: You are wrong. I know better.
“You’re lying about what do you can do”
“No-one can do all of those things”
“You think you are better than everyone else”
“You will never be able to do that”
“That idea is impossible”
“Your knowledge and skills are not transferable”
“This is the way it’s always been done — stop trying to change things”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about”
Being told these things also hurts me deeply. I have arguments against all these points, but now I just don’t share them. If someone has this position about me, then what we’re seeing here is an impasse. I often reflect, one the reasons I live with a quiet pervasive existential depression is due to the fact that the world is full of suffering, and the act of discrimination and disconnection is a human trait. Humans fear difference — it is a survival mechanism, and it is so strong in many many people. When someone shares their ability, and you can’t do that or you can’t understand that, don’t reject them! Yet, people do this all the time. They make assumptions, they judge, they rule you out, they exclude you… And it hurts!In an interview, I once was told: “You’ve done too many things. It shows you can’t commit to anything”. This person described ME as flaky and lacking focus because I have done so many things, and studied so many areas. He didn’t truly see me. This person refused to see who I am, and instead judged me for who he assumed I was.
Strengths: An Improvement-Focus
Is it a gifted thing or an autistic thing that I get extremely bored when I’m not being intellectually challenged? Who knows! But, it’s true: I need stimulating input all the time. I have a need to continually work to improve things.
Improvement matters. It’s about making things BETTER. I am committed to improving myself, to improving my environment, to improving others, to improving the world. Everything has the potential for growth, and it is something that’s positive.I am excited by the aspect of LEARNING, and I enjoy exploring topics and ideas and developing myself as a rich and full person with knowledge in many arenas. I also believe that you can’t really understand something until you do it, so I try to do activities that reinforce my learning in theory… and that means I’ve done a shit load of things.
See Me, Don’t Diminish Me
I have also been told (in response to explaining my challenges), “that’s not a real problem; everyone faces these struggles in life”, and though I recognize all humans experience challenges and all humans receive judgment at times, the plight of an autistic and/or gifted individual is not the same as “all humans”. Being continually given a label, being told that your ideas are wrong, being told that you are incapable or whatever you have in mind is an impossible task — WOW, that’s a way to kill creativity and punish a human. Are we really so draconian?And my wish is simply to be SEEN. Authentically SEEN.
I am capable — just look at what I can do! Just look at my qualifications. Just look at my academic scores. Just look at my experience. Just hear what my teachers think of me. Just listen to my words. Just give me a try. Just believe in me. Just see ME as a person, not as “something flawed”.
In sum, I reflect that being autistic and gifted is hard. It presents conflicting struggles. On the one hand you’re bright, so it should be easy to excel, but on the other hand, you’re restricted by your disability…
Yet, my autism and my giftedness are things I cannot change; these two parts of me that are ME. They are my identity.
Being a minority, I have to fight for everything that I want to do. Yes, I know there are always people worse off than me, and everyone has their own “fight”, but with autism and with giftedness, I am constantly put in situations where I have to prove to the majority that I am capable, that I can do it, that I do matter, that I have something worthwhile to say, and that they should listen. And this is saddening too.
It hurts to be a minority and not be heard. It hurts to be a minority and not truly seen.
With all things, and perhaps this is my nature, I seek to IMPROVE. I want to make things better. I want to grow. I will keep moving forward, keep working on myself, continuing to research topics I find valuable, and perhaps somewhere in that, I will find kindred spirits?