A lot of people in the Autistic community have expressed a dislike for the term “special interest”.
Typically, “special interest” is used to describe the interests of an Autistic person in a way that pathologises them as obscure and obsessive in nature. I agree, there’s something of a stigma to the term “special interest”. I do, however, think it’s worth differentiating between just plain interests that might not be particularly deep or exciting, with interests that a person is particularly passionate about.
I don’t for a moment think that a passionate interest in a topic is unique to Autistic people. Our interests might be different from those of most neurotypical people, but having an interest that is more intense than others cannot be something that neurotypical people don’t experience.
I think almost everyone has a topic that they’re passionate about, be it a favourite sport, a band, a hobby. It’s something that makes them light up when they talk about it. It gives them a buzz that is visible to others when they talk about it. Live Roleplayers (and probably a few other gaming and fantasy communities) refer to the act of talking about something that generates this kind of buzz “frothing”. This was originally used to demean those with an intense interest in a hobby, but has been reclaimed by the LRP community as an acceptable descriptor for engaging in game-related excitement, plotting and reliving powerful moments.
Intense interests, even among the neurotypical, are mocked and pathologised. I think they should be embraced and encouraged. After all, intense interest is what got me my job. In my interview, I showed a passion for inventing, for exploring new concepts. I’ve since been told that talking about topics that are important to me makes me “sparkle”. I think sparkling is a good thing. Sparkling is glowing with excitement and happiness for a thing. That’s not bad.
I call the topics that get me this excited my “sparkle topics”. I don’t mean it in a condescending way like “special” or “intense” have become. I don’t mean it as a pathologisation of interest. I’m claiming the word “sparkle” as a representation of how happy and alive it makes me. Like diamonds, or fireworks, they’re intense, beautiful and precious. I own my sparkle. I think everyone should learn to own theirs.