Celebrating Autistic Interests

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH

About the Author

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH, is the executive director at AANE and the author of Parenting Without Panic. Brenda is a mom of three, and her eldest is an Autistic transgender woman. Brenda has facilitated parent support groups for over 20 years and thoroughly enjoys creating an environment where parents can find the support, information, and the community they need.

My curiosity is always piqued when I talk with Autistic adults about topics I know very little about. My perspective and understanding of history, sustainability, and art have expanded thanks to the Autistic children, teens, and adults I’ve had the pleasure to get to know. And I’ve seen friendships and relationships blossom through involvement in interest based groups.

Evolving perspectives on Autistic interests

Over the past 25 years, I am grateful for the evolution in how non-Autistic people think about Autistic interests. When my 26 year-old daughter was younger, many people thought we should limit the amount of time we let her talk about or engage in her interests. They were concerned that letting her focus all her conversation and free time on the Magic the Gathering card game would mean that she wouldn’t learn how to have reciprocal conversations and connect with other people who might not share her interests. I understood that they wanted her to expand conversation topics and social circles so that she had more options for connection. But I found that her interest in that particular card game opened doors for her to meet, talk with, and spend hours each week playing the game with other kids who were just as passionate about the game as she was. Most importantly, she was happy.

But still other professionals and teachers often shared that they thought my daughter’s interests were too restricted. The advice they gave at the time was to put her in more skill building groups so that she’d be able to interact with others on a variety of topics. Like many parents, I felt the push/pull of helping her build skills so that she would be able to step outside her comfort zone if she chose versus finding ways for her to spend as much time as possible in pursuits that provided respite from the demands and stresses of daily life and connected her to others who shared her passion.

Fast forward 20 years, and I see a marked difference in how Autistic interests are perceived. Now we routinely use interests as a way to help people connect with each other. Instead of encouraging people to talk about “non-preferred” topics, we use shared interests to help Autistic people connect with others and build deeper friendships.

Just last night, I had a conversation with my daughter that she gave me permission to share here. She told me how lonely she felt. I encouraged her to look at the AANE interest groups, and together we looked at ways she could begin to meet people who share her interests in movies, games, anime, or history. Her social anxiety makes it challenging to expand her friend circle beyond the few close friends she’s had since middle school. She agreed that interest based groups were a safe place to try and meet new people who might become friends over time.

Shared interests as an antidote to loneliness

When my daughter told me she was lonely and felt like none of her friends cared about her, I desperately wanted to comfort her and take away her pain. She wanted a strong hug and I hoped that being with her as she cried would help ease some of the emotional distress she was feeling. When she was ready to talk about it, she said that she wants to find people who share her interest in living as a trans woman, or discussing history, or playing board/video games, or watching anime or movies. And she’s not alone in those feelings. Many of the conversations I have with Autistic adults and family members are focused on how to address loneliness. Building friendships as an adult takes time. Spending time with others who share your interests is more likely to lead to deeper and sustainable connections.

I’m often asked by Autistic adults or their family members if I know any other Autistic adults who share their interests. Beyond connecting them with the AANE interest groups we have, I think of other adults I know in our community who might be a good match for friendship based on similar passions. One of my favorite aspects of my job as executive director is getting to know our community members and helping to introduce people to each other who might turn out to be friends – and it all starts with interests.

Deep interests as positive opportunities

I hope that we continue to move away from seeing deep interests as something to strictly limit or make contingent on certain behaviors or task completion. Interests are so much more than a motivational tool – they are crucial to helping us enjoy our lives and connect with others. My wish for you is to have interests that help you feel content – and people to share them with.

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