How can you tell which it is?
My initial answer is if society values the topic you’re intensely interested in, it’s a gifted trait. If your interest is unpalatable to the common man, it’s a special interest. But I’m not sure that answer is entirely accurate or helpful, so I wanted to explore this question a little bit more.
In the gifted world, a sudden and strong interest in a particular subject before unexplored by the individual is called “going down the rabbit hole.” Parents of gifted children are socially supported in encouraging their child’s interest. Often times the subject is a branch of science that can be turned into a future profession if the interest continues for years. I “know” online the mother of a wonderful young girl who has been interested in herpetology since she was very little; that girl now teaches collage classes on the topic. After all, we want our children to be engaged and interested, don’t we?
Some gifted children have even more than the usual amount of driving curiosity. When that occurs it is labeled as Dabrowski’s Intellectual Overexcitability. Again it is supported, though somewhat tempered by the limited patience of those around the child. As adults, many gifted people learn that most people do not want to hear in great detail about obscure topics, and adjust their behavior accordingly. Often resulting in depression and feelings of social isolation for the individual, but that’s an internal process that goes mostly ignored by everyone else.
How is this different from autistic special interests?
The DSM-V, the standard for most in regards to official definition of differences, defines what is commonly called “Special Interests” as:
Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities…Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g., strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests).
Gifted interest certainly is “abnormal in intensity or focus” if my understanding of what is neurotypical is correct. Whether the object of their interest is “unusual” or not is entirely subjective, and based on what society values…..or doesn’t. An autistic person with an intense fascination with vacuums is not seen as a future vacuum engineer, but rather an oddity that prevents the person from making friends by being too weird and should be discouraged. If that were all it was that was different between the two, my initial, cynical conclusion would stand. But there is a little bit more to it, I think.
Recently, I went though a very brief but intense focus of attention on magic tricks. Specifically card tricks and flourishes. The skill behind such illusions was fascinating, and I watched many videos multiple times to try to learn them. That by itself could be considered a rabbit hole. But I practiced so much my hands ached….and I could not stop practicing. I had to take over the counter pain medication to reduce the ache and inflammation, but I kept going at it. I was not in control of myself. For hours even though the pain I could not stop. I knew I should. I wanted to. But I could not keep my hands still; could not redirect my focus.
In psychology, behavior out of the norm is tolerated until it is such a degree that it begins to impair function. Everyone has sad times but it is not depression until it is an overwhelming problem that stops your ability to take care of basic needs. I think not being able to stop myself, even when I was hurting and wanting to stop qualifies as disorder.
Does this mean that all autistic special interest is dysfunctional and out of our control? NO. It does mean that it hurts us more when others are disinterested. It does mean we are less likely to be socially supported or understood. Our family went to the zoo recently. I noticed that there was a giraffe skeleton off to once side of the enclosure. I’ve had a year long fascination with forensic anthropology and skeletons of all sorts. (I have a coyote skull that I requested as my Christmas gift. I named it Coy-yorick. Only one person IRL has gotten the joke/reference so far.) I spent far more time studying the giraffe skull than I did looking at the live animal that everyone else was looking at. Not out of control, but not something that makes people comfortable, either. For a year now I’ve been interested in the particulars and science of death and human decomposition. I know well enough that it is not something I can blurt out excitedly when someone says something that triggers an interesting (to me) fact. Mostly I stop myself before freaking people out with things they really don’t want to know. “Unusual” to be sure. Socially isolating: before the internet, definitely. But now there are YouTube channels like Ask A Mortician and people all over can be found who share the interest. How many people have to exist that are interested before it’s not “unusual” any more?
For parents of Twice-Exceptional (2E: both gifted and have a disability) kids, I think some ask if their child’s interest is gifted related or autism related so they know if they should encourage it or not. Anecdotally, there are so many autistic adults who have spoken out about how their area of interest was suppressed by parents because it wasn’t normal. I had my books taken away in middle school because I was “reading too much.” (It was my escape and coping mechanism; I only got more depressed and disengaged.) Amythest Schaber has a good video on the topic in her Ask an Autistic series.
I know that understanding things is natural, and being able to categorize things we don’t understand well gives us (all people, not just autistics) as sense of control. But if you’ve got a 2E kid, as long as the area of interest isn’t hurting anyone and life is still happening, then it doesn’t matter. Encourage it all. I’ve been using Lady Bug’s special interests to engage her and get her to communicate more.
Sometimes I jump from one interest to another. The card tricks intensity only lasted a week, while other interests last for years. I do have a hard time focusing on things that I’m not personally interested; though most people who are honest would say the same thing. Are these gifted rabbit holes I’m following, or autistic special interests? We want to know the difference, which to attribute to which. But the truth is it’s so intertwined that there is no one answer a lot of the time. It’s not one or the other; it’s both because I’m both.
This blog post is my contribution to the Gifted Homeschooler’s Forum’s Gifted People and Rabbit Holes Blog Hop. Click here for more posts on the topic.