Person playing piano Creative commons image Credit: .ygor via Flickr

People on the autism spectrum frequently have special interests which are rather different from the kinds of interests most people favour as hobbies and leisure pursuits. The special interests of people with autism may focus on unusual topics – washing machines, and the Titanic passenger list, are two examples.

The person with autism may also pursue their chosen interest with unusual vigour, for instance finding out everything there is to know about a particular video-game character.    

People not on the autism spectrum may find it difficult to understand the attraction of these eccentric special interests, and parents sometimes express frustration at the amount of time their child spends on their interest, and at the incessant questioning that may accompany it.

Understanding the autism spectrum Understanding the autism spectrum

An accessible introduction to autism, this course explores principles and problems of diagnosis,...

Read more : Understanding the autism spectrum

Though special interests are a well-known characteristic of autism, there has been little research on them. Some autism experts argue that they are detrimental because all the time and attention they take up exacerbates problems of social isolation and suppresses other opportunities for learning.

Yet the individual with the interest may find their chosen pursuit fulfilling and comforting, and some experts believe that special interests can serve as effective building blocks for other forms of learning. There is much still to be explored in this field.

Another interesting phenomenon associated with autism is high levels of skill in specialised areas. For instance, some people with autism can complete complex jigsaw puzzles turned upside down so that the picture is not visible or can recite long strings of names from the phone book.

There may well be a link between special interests and special skills: a child who spends all their time reading about dinosaurs is likely to become very knowledgeable in this field.  

Yet some outstanding skills seem to develop quite abruptly in early childhood, and apparently without the individual practising for long periods. Such exceptional talents in autism are rare and typically accompanied by striking difficulties in other areas.

For instance, Stephen Wiltshire and Derek Paravicini are two young men with profound forms of autism: they have a lot of difficulty in communicating and interacting socially, as well as intellectual difficulties. But Stephen showed an outstanding talent for drawing from an early age, and without being taught, while Derek displayed a similar self-taught talent for the piano.

But Stephen showed an outstanding talent for drawing from an early age, and without being taught, while Derek displayed a similar self-taught talent for the piano.



The Los Angeles cityscape Creative commons image Credit: Mistermundo via Flickr

Stephen draws complex cityscapes, such as Canary Wharf, with astonishing accuracy after just a few minutes study. And Derek can play a huge repertoire of tunes from memory, is an accomplished jazz pianist and has played with Jools Holland among others.

Such exceptional talent, coupled with fairly profound disabilities, is known as savant syndrome. It occurs in a very small minority of people on the autism spectrum, and often involves fields such as visual art or music, though others with savant autism have special numerical skills or can work out what day of the week it was on any named date, even 200 years ago.

Researchers seeking to explain how exceptional savant talents can come about believe that possible factors include exceptional memory and attention to detail. However, being able to reproduce real sights or sounds very accurately is probably not the whole story. For instance, one artist on the autism spectrum draws elaborate cityscapes, which look as if they might be towns in France. But actually, they all come from his imagination. 

Because of the public attention that exceptional individuals like Stephen and Derek have received, some people believe, wrongly, that everyone on the autism spectrum has savant-type skills. This can make life difficult for the many people on the autism spectrum who don’t have any notable special skills: they and their parents may feel that everyone expects them to do something exceptional. It is important to recognise and celebrate the exceptional individuals, but equally important not to overlook the needs and difficulties of the majority with autism, who don’t have these extraordinary skills.

Find out more 

Want to discover more about the subject of autism?

Why not study the Open University's Understanding the autism spectrum course which gives you an insight into the symptoms of conditions on the autism spectrum as well as how behaviour, mental functioning, family relationships and social adaptation is affected. 

Find out more about research on special interests in autism at the OU

Read about an OU research study of poetry written people on the autism spectrum

Listen to Derek Paravicini playing

Look at Stephen Wiltshire’s gallery