When you witness an autistic person spending six hours a day playing a video game, or on their tablet or smartphone, or compulsively watching the same movie or TV show or being absorbed in books about their favourite topic, a person may worry about it being an addiction, rather than a pastime. This may be especially worrisome when an autistic person doing their favourite thing cuts into time that is supposed to be used for homework, or cleaning the house, or other healthy activities like playing outdoors with friends. When a person obsessively does the same thing for hours, isn’t that an addiction?
Keep in mind that our special interests are our medicine. It medicates the pain of living in a world that is hostile to autistic people. Many of us may escape into our own special interests because it soothes that pain. An escape into our interests is relaxing after a long day of being bullied by our classmates at school, snapped at by teachers who see us daydreaming in class, operating under fluorescent lights, taking phone calls at work, and being forced into social interactions with others. It can restore balance to our lives and help us make peace with our bodies and the world around us. An overindulgence in our medicine, escaping into our special interest too often or for too long, may just be us needing extra peace right now. It may even be a cry for help, as there is something significantly bothering us that we do not see a resolution for.
Dr. Gabor Maté, in chapter ten of “In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, offers helpful advice in determining what is a life-fulfilling passion, and what is an addiction. He writes, “If you want to know, look around you. Are you closer to the people you love after your passion has been fulfilled? Or more isolated? Have you come more truly into who you are? Or are you left feeling hollow? The difference between passion and addiction is the difference between a divine spark and a flame that incinerates”.
Our special interests are that divine spark, under this definition. Our special interests help us come more truly into who we are, by feeding passion and light into our lives. I also believe that our special interests can, in many cases, be conduits for connection. An autistic person who shares their interest with another person is a baring of their soul. It is a sharing of their light and their warmth with you. The autistic person has found something which pours joy and happiness and purpose into their lives, in the hopes that it will also bring you joy as well.