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Learning to lean on “special interests” after my autism diagnosis

A collection of dice and Agatha Christie/nature books on a table.

"You didn’t have obsessions, you just really liked maths…”

This is something my parents said to me when I first talked to them about possibly being autistic. I found it kinda funny.


They were bribing me with simultaneous equations and long division sums by the age of six. I always wanted more maths puzzles, and maths books, and to finish all my set maths work at school so that I could… yep, you guessed it: do more maths.


On the one hand, they are not wrong. I did really like maths. But on the other hand, I think it is fair to say that was an obsession!


I don’t think that this is a bad thing. Like similar obsessions as an adult, it was a comfort. And it kept my otherwise-probably-very-overstimulated mind occupied.


 

What makes an interest “special”?


The classic stereotype, though I suspect this is not really all that common, would be an obsession with train timetables.


It could be anything. A type of animal, a band, a character in a book. The difference is the extent of the interest. Most children would be able to tell you a bit about their favourite animal. An autistic child could probably tell you more facts than you have ever heard, or are ever likely to hear, about that animal. For younger me that animal was dolphins.


My “special interests” — though I did not know that this is what they were until my diagnosis — are the place I retreat to when I’m overwhelmed or burnt out. I find them comforting. They give me back some of the energy that the rest of the world takes away.


I sometimes talk about them more than people would like, which is apparently quite common too. Maybe because I haven’t noticed that the other person is bored… but more often than not, it’s that I physically cannot stop myself until I have finished my “script” containing every detail that you (well, I) could possibly want to know. If anyone reading this has been on the receiving end of that: I apologise. And I will not change.


This is a little tour of my special interests, past and present, and how my relationship with them has changed — for the better — since my autism diagnosis.


 

As a child I had obsessions, I guess they just weren’t that “weird”


Alright, alright. I can hear some of my friends and family scoffing already. Some of them were a little weird… But they didn’t fall into the classic, exaggerated, autism stereotype. So nobody questioned them.


I had a big thing for interior design for several years. I loved going to the local DIY store and collecting paint swatches, wallpaper samples, catalogues of lights and furniture. I would buy interior design magazines and watch endless home improvement TV shows. (Is Changing Rooms still a thing? That was good shit). I made a book with different collages of room designs. I liked organising and reorganising my various paint swatches and samples in my filing folder. I was very, very cool.


It was similar with cooking. I spent a lot of time watching cooking shows. Entire days or weeks on end if it was allowed, e.g. if I was off sick from school, which happened a lot. I enjoyed planning and writing out shopping lists for meals at least as much as the cooking. I was probably pretty good for a kid. I had enough background knowledge from watching my parents, plus TV, magazines, and books, that I didn’t use recipes — still don’t.


I also was very keen on my rock collection. I collected precisely 100 rocks. I liked to take them out, and count them, and categorise them. The last ten or so weren’t even good rocks, they were just bits of gravel that I’d included to make up the numbers. For some reason, it was very important to me that there were precisely 100. Mysteriously, when we moved house, the rocks didn’t show up again…


 

As an adult, I am very all-or-nothing with hobbies


The exact hobbies haven’t persisted — I never did restart that rock collection — but the attitude definitely has. People tell me I am very “all or nothing” with the things that I do.


When I started to volunteer, I didn’t just dip my toe in. I didn’t even attend an event run by the charity to see what it was like. I just immediately applied to start leading part of the organisation. Then I did that for three years.


When I first discovered Dungeons & Dragons (via the Greetings, Adventurers! podcast) I cleared 500 hours of podcast in just a few months. I started DM’ing for a group of friends, having never played before. It’s a lot of work, but the mixture of creative outlet and structure is perfect for me.


When I watch TV or a film, it is almost always something I have watched before. My main obsession is Agatha Christie. I’ve watched all of the Poirot and Miss Marple episodes countless times. I almost never remember whodunnit, because my memory for TV is terrible. And I will definitely always laugh at Poirot asking Hastings what a “hussy” is.


 

Learning to lean on my special interests


I always knew it took a lot of energy for me to work up to something unfamiliar. Watching a new film, trying a new running route, or listening to literally any other D&D podcast.


I used to try and force that, feeling like I “should” be doing new things.

Since my autism diagnosis, I understand why my hobbies and interests always go the same way… and I’ve simply stopped fighting it.


Leaning into my special interests makes free time infinitely more enjoyable. My mental health has benefited. I have an increased sense of purpose and self-identity. I’ve even felt less lonely (I live alone and got diagnosed during the pandemic) because any evenings or days spent alone are more fulfilling now.


If I never listen to another podcast, or end up watching that Miss Marple episode for the 87th time this week… who gives a shit? As long as I’m happy.


Lauren x

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