The Joy of Special Interests and Deep Dives

At this very moment, I’m several hours into a Dark Shadows marathon.  I love this show, even if it’s ridiculously melodramatic and diabolically slowly paced and made on a frayed shoestring of a budget that forced them to leave mistakes and prop fails and other flubs in the finished product.

How do I know that last bit?  Easy.  Dark Shadows is one of my special interests and I’ve done some deep dives on it.  Most things Halloween are my special interests, actually, which makes this time of year awesome!  Because special interests and deep dives are great sources of autistic joy.

What Are Special Interests?

Autistic special interests (SpIns, obsessions, etc.) are those topics that we love more than others.  And when we find things that we love, we love them with our customary intensity.  It’s really that simple.    

My Halloween special interest takes in everything from Dark Shadows, Universal monster movies, and Vincent Price to The Addams Family, Tim Burton, and the Hammer films.  I can recite the Lon Chaney, Jr. Wolfman, I love some of Vincent Price’s lesser-known work (The Tingler is an underrated gem), and I can go on at length about the virtues of the 1960s TV version of The Addams Family vs the 1990s movie version.

But I have other special interests as well.  Musical theatre, for a start – Old Hollywood movie musicals, Broadway, Sondheim, Lerner and Lowe, Kander and Ebb – if it’s a musical, I’ll at least give it a chance and I’m forever finding new pieces to be obsessed with.  My latest favorites are Something Rotten, Six, and (believe it or not) Beetlejuice – seriously, who thought that needed to be a musical?  But it’s good!

Why do autistic people have special interests?  I’ll be honest, I don’t quite know.  But they make us happy and make our brains feel good in a world full of stuff that makes us feel bad, so I will defend our right to them forever!

What About Deep Dives?

Deep dives are joyful ways for us to engage with our special interests on an intense level.  They give us a kind of brain stimulation that’s a bit difficult to explain to NTs – if you don’t understand the joy of learning absolutely everything about something you love, I don’t know how to make it make sense to you.  If your brain doesn’t crave and get huge dopamine hits from simply knowing things, all I can tell you is that it does it for us. 

Deep dives are how we learn everything about our special interests, how we know all the vast background of Tolkien lore, or why Bob Fosse’s choreography is recognizable on sight, or our favorite actor’s entire filmography.

For instance, I can tell you that Sir Christopher Lee refused to say any line of dialogue that wasn’t up to his standards in the Hammer Dracula films – and because of that, by the end of that franchise, he never spoke a word!  Vincent Price was a gourmand who put out at least two cookbooks (that I have yet to acquire) and he curated a line of affordable prints of famous artwork for Sears.

As for my useless trivia about musicals – well, let’s start with the fact that the famous “Make ‘Em Laugh” number from Singin’ In the Rain was a direct and purposeful rip off of Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown”, in both message and melody.  If that’s not an obscure and pointless thing to know, I don’t know what is (I say that with a huge grin because this is exactly the kind of thing that makes me incredibly happy)!

I cannot adequately express to you the joy, the sheer delight that deep dives bring autistic people.  Many of us love learning just for the sake of filling our brains with new knowledge, but it’s even better when it’s knowledge about things we love.

But the Doctor Said “Special Interests Are a Symptom…

This is a misunderstanding that comes from the pathological or medical model of autism.  The criteria usually list something like “restricted interests”, which isn’t truly accurate.  Some autistic people have many special interests, some have only one or two.  Some of us have “major” and “minor” special interests – those that stay with us throughout our lives, and those that we get really into for a while and then move on from.

Clinicians may also expect us to be obsessed with trains or air conditioners or something – this stems from more misunderstanding and research done without autistic input.  Some autistic people do love trains, cars, or construction equipment, and that’s awesome!  But there are as many special interests as there are autistic people in the world.

Special interests are not harmful. 

Let me say that again.

Special interests are not harmful.  And they don’t need to be stopped any more than stims do.  In fact, you can think of special interests and deep dives like brain stims.  As long as they aren’t dangerous, there’s no reason to discourage them. 

Special Interests as an Autistic Love Language

We love to infodump – sharing our special interests is a form of connection for us.  When someone recognizes that and lets us just go on for a while, we get a brain high that I really can’t describe.  We spend so much of our lives being told that we talk too much about things that nobody cares about, it means the world to us to be accepted along with the things we love and the intense way in which we love them.     

If you have an autistic loved one who knows everything about the Loch Ness Monster, or the Arthurian legend, or Impressionist painters, don’t try to dissuade them from their passions.  Ask them about them and listen to them.  Watch their face light up as they tell you about quantum physics; feel their contagious glee as they explain the differences between their favorite novel and its film adaptation and why the choices were good or bad. 

If your autistic loved one continually tries to engage you in discussion of their special interests, that’s an attempt to connect with you.  If you dismiss them or tell them you don’t care, they’ll only learn to never share what they love with you again.  If you seriously can’t deal with their preferred topic for more than a few minutes (and I get that, my brain glazes over quickly listening to math and some of the hard sciences), tell them that you can listen to them for five minutes before you have to do something else.  Maybe even set a timer, especially with kids.  But give them your attention and connection for that time.  And see how happy they are to be seen and heard with what they love.  Witness the joy that comes from being so intent and so immersed in a special interest and being able to share that with someone they love.

An image of a brain filled with multicolored hearts of varying sizes. Blue and white text ona purple background reads" The Joy of Special Interests and Deep Dives"

I’m sure I missed your special interest, so tell me about it in the comments!  What’s your favorite useless trivia fact?  What was the best gift you ever received related to your special interest?  How far have you gone on a deep dive?

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