Special Interests + Hyperfixations

Being neurodivergent affects our interests and hobbies.

June 8, 2021

Have you ever loved something so much that the people around you would call it an obsession?

Many neurodivergent people, specifically those with autism or ADHD, have interests or hobbies that neurotypical people might consider “obsessive”. These topics or activities bring us comfort and allow us to express ourselves or engage with others. They can even translate into careers or fields of study. Generally speaking, there are two terms used to describe these interests.

The first kind are known as special interests. This term is specifically used by autistic people and describes persisting, long-term interests or activities that bring them comfort. Special interests can help autistic people interact with the world — my longest special interest, storytelling, helps me understand and empathize with other people. Special interests can change over time and sometimes shift or go away, though it’s not quite as common for them to do so. I had a special interest in LEGOs for many years, but it eventually became less intense and is no longer an activity I spend much time on.

The second kind is known as a hyperfixation. This term is primarily used by people with ADHD, and describes interests that are all-consuming for a fairly short period of time, usually a few months at most. At the end of that period of time, the person usually stops being interested in the subject. Hyperfixations can come back and often work in cycles — I have returned to hyperfixations months or years after I first had them. Though the term is mainly used by those with ADHD, hyperfixations are not specific to them (unlike special interests, which are only experienced by autistic people.)

I am autistic, and I also have ADHD. This means that I have both special interests and hyperfixations. To give you a better understanding of the differences, I’ve created a chart.

Hyperfixations:

  • Short; usually anywhere from a few weeks to a few months
  • Highly intensive; can overpower my special interests or work in tandem with them
  • May come back; I have returned to hyperfixations months or years after they’ve ended
  • Typically only one hyperfixation at a time

My hyperfixations usually manifest through the media I’m interested in. I’ve hyperfixated on video games, TV shows, book series’, movies, and webcomics in the past. These hyperfixations also tie into my special interests in writing and storytelling, and I will often write about what I’m hyperfixating on. My current hyperfixation is the video game series Ace Attorney, but past highlights include the show She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and the movie Promare.

Special Interests:

  • Long-term; can last for many years or be lifelong
  • Intensity can vary; can be very intensive or less intensive
  • Can have many at once; the reported average is 8 at a time

I’ve had lots of special interests throughout my life. They have developed at different times, and with a few exceptions most of them have not gone away. My longest special interest is storytelling. When I was younger this manifested in stories I would tell with toys or to myself, and as I got older it started to manifest in tandem with my special interest in writing. Other special interests that I have include science fiction and fantasy, politics (especially social issues and various rights movements), and the history of LGBTQ+ representation in media.

It’s important to remember that while special interests or hyperfixations can appear to be obsessive or unhealthy, they bring neurodivergent people comfort and allow us to engage with things we enjoy. My special interest in storytelling is the lens through which I view the world, and it makes me a more empathetic person. The things we love make us human, and for neurodivergent people, they are also part of who we are.

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