Image shows a closeup of a few colored pencils on a blue wooden table. Text says, “Our interests are ours / they aren’t yours to take from us. ~ C.L. Bridge, awnnetwork.org”

Our Interests Are Ours

In kindergarten, I loved one thing more than just about anything else: the Care Bears. I loved their rainbow colors and their magical land of clouds. Unfortunately, most of my classmates did not share my appreciation for these whimsical bears. The teasing began on my first day of school. “Care Bears are for babies!” “Hey, C.L., there’s a Care Bear behind you!” I often retaliated by hitting, which earned me several detentions.

I already knew how to read, write, and count. To relieve boredom during an adding lesson, I drew Care Bears on my worksheet. (I guess counting Care Bears was more fun than counting boxes or circles.) Of course, my teacher wasn’t pleased. Before long, children weren’t the only ones shaming me for my special interest.

“You can borrow any picture book you want,” my teacher told my classmates as we headed to the school library. “Except C.L. She isn’t allowed to borrow a Care Bears book.”

“I’m not punishing you,” my mom said as she removed my Care Bears videotapes from my room for an entire week, “but you’re obsessed.”

It was a punishment, even if it was not meant to be. The shame I was made to feel for liking the Care Bears as much as I did was definitely a punishment.

But that was a long time ago. I wasn’t even diagnosed with autism until fourth grade. They were more understanding once they knew how intense autistic people’s interests can be, right?

Not exactly. Even after adults in my life knew I was autistic, the unintentional shaming continued. “Girls don’t want to talk about Pokémon all the time. Why are you so stuck on Pokémon?”

By age fourteen, I was concealing the fact that I even had intense interests. My parents thought I didn’t have “obsessions” anymore, but they were wrong. Past rejection had sent me into hiding. I thought that once I turned

Image shows a closeup of a few colored pencils on a blue wooden table. Text says, “Our interests are ours / they aren’t yours to take from us. ~ C.L. Bridge, awnnetwork.org”
Image shows a closeup of a few colored pencils on a blue wooden table. Text says, “Our interests are ours / they aren’t yours to take from us. ~ C.L. Bridge, awnnetwork.org”

eighteen, I would no longer have to worry about interest-shaming, but I was wrong. When I was nineteen, a therapist asked me if I thought it would be okay to wear Hello Kitty accessories. When I answered yes, she looked disdainful. “Really? You don’t think that’s age-inappropriate?” The fact that I’d seen several students at my community college with Hello Kitty accessories apparently didn’t matter.

Things are much better now, because I have friends and allies who accept me. I can talk excitedly about my favorite things without anyone telling me I can’t. But the pain and anxiety of the past remain inside me.

I wish all professionals, parents, and teachers would work with autistic people’s interests, not against them, and I know that some do… But some don’t.

A fairly recent article by Lisa Jo Rudy, entitled “Ten Kinds of Gifts Autistic Kids (and Their Parents) Will Hate” reminds me that pathologizing our passions is still a thing. Some of Rudy’s holiday gift-giving “don’ts” are sensible suggestions, such as not giving a child toys that will cause sensory overload, or food their diet doesn’t allow. Unlike my past therapist, Rudy understands that pushing “age-appropriate” interests will only upset us. One suggestion, however, makes me sad and angry—Rudy says not to give “toys that encourage an obsessive interest”. She claims that if a child spends their holiday counting and sorting baseball cards, it’s “not really a positive gift to give”.

Can you imagine telling a non-autistic child’s family never to give that child their favorite thing for Christmas? Saying that autistic kids shouldn’t be given their favorite things for the holidays—when most non-autistic children do receive gifts related to their favorite things—is completely ableist.

Our passions help us cope, too. Holiday gatherings can be chaotic. After being surrounded by noisy conversation, overly affectionate relatives, screaming babies, and flashing cameras, a nice long card-sorting session could be just what an overstimulated autistic person needs. I’m unsure how not giving a child baseball cards (or waiting until it is no longer the holidays to give them, as Rudy suggests) is going to make that child more sociable at a crowded party.

In my kindergarten days, the Care Bears were not the problem; the fact that adults treated them like a problem was. What if adults had instead discouraged the children from teasing me, or taught me to defend myself in more peaceful ways? The Care Bears’ emphasis on understanding and dealing with emotions would actually have been a great way to teach me this! Incorporating the bears into my lessons now and then wouldn’t have hurt anything (although not making me sound out vowels when I could read fluently would have helped too).

Autistic people’s interests are much more than “symptoms” or “obsessions”. They are part of us. They matter to us. They matter at school, during the holidays, or wherever and whenever we happen to have them. Of course we need to balance them with other activities, and we don’t need to neglect our school work, but our strong focus on what we love is one of our strengths. Making us feel that we are wrong to like what we like, or that we should like it less, is damaging. Our interests are ours; they aren’t yours to take from us.

If you are a professional who encourages autistic people to excel at what they love, and love it unashamedly, thank you. We need more people like you. If you notice someone shaming an autistic person for liking something unusual or liking something too much, please speak up. Remind them that our interests are ours.


About C.L. Bridge: C.L. is an autistic person who enjoys art, games, and aquatic animals.

13 thoughts on “Our Interests Are Ours”

  1. Right on point. I don’t know if you guys know the book Asperkids by Jennifer O’Toole as it goes in the same direction. It gives examples ok how you can actually USE special interests for a bunch of positive things, not only for defragmenting my brain’s HD after sensory overloads. I know plenty of people who’d say the same. Pathologizing our interests is not only trying to change us, but it’s also destroying our only interests. Do they want us to be just agreeable boring little robots, who just can ‘function’, be it ‘ high’ or ‘low’? It’s like saying ‘ kid, we’re not okay with the way you interact, but we’re also not okay with who you are’.

  2. Bravo!! I had to tell someone recently that No, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with Ben’s love of Hello Kitty. No, Hello Kitty isn’t *for girls*.

  3. My daughter’s passion is American Girl. She got a Bitty Baby at age 5 and her first AG doll at age 8. She sill collects at age 21. Since age 11 she has wanted to work at American Girl in NYC. To help her achieve her goal – and other young women like her, I founded Yes She Can Inc, a nonprofit to help young women with ASD develop transferable job skills. We operate Girl AGain, a resale boutique for American Girl dolls. Not all our trainees have the same passion for the product line that Izzie has, but many do. And we leverage that passion to motivate and teach important work place skills. In fact, Izzie’s expertise is a real asset – she can upsell and cross sell any customer!

    Izzie walks around with her dolls, and as her mother I admit, I sometimes try to discourage her. But she is who she is, and her love of AG dolls is not that odd – we have plenty of adult customers, we even have boys and men who are collectors.

    Now her passion for Wicked… we had to get her wireless headphones so we don’t have to hear the YouTube videos of Defying Gravity all day.

  4. Hello fellow autistic person!
    “Girls don’t want to talk about Pokémon all the time. Why are you so stuck on Pokémon?”
    You and my 13-year-old self could have been best friends. My then best friend and I actually only talked about Pokémon, as she didn’t share my other special interest “The Lord of the Rings”.

    Thank you very much for writing this article. 🙂

    Greeting from germany
    Svoe

  5. I am also reeling from being scorned for my special interests. I went into hiding myself, especially in high school, when I barely interacted with anyone. I was able to get more “Age-Appropriate” special interests, but still, there were “inappropriate” ones throughout my life. I’ve even written about them, if anyone wants to look.

    Funny thing is, those special interests don’t really go away from me. They stay underground, only to emerge at a later time.

  6. I was totally all over Mighty Morphin Power Rangers back in the 90’s, back when nerdy teen stuff wasn’t cool yet. Kimberly is still my favorite– Pink Ranger forever! 🙂

    My dad would groan any time I talked about MMPR and tried to encourage my mom not to get me MMPR stuff, but she didn’t listen. (I was diagnosed at 15 so that’s how my parents got an explanation for why I attach to things like I do…)

    Just recently, I went into special interest paradise at California Adventure. I love Guardians of the Galaxy– especially Groot. I held nothing back when I got to meet Groot for the meet and greet. I showed him my stim toys and told him he was my favorite and who needs Disney princes when I have him? (In a friendship way, not romantic!)

    I was well aware it’s a person in a costume, but that’s Disney magic and as far as I’m concerned I met Groot! And it made me so happy. Still does. Here’s the video if you want to enjoy the memory with me. 🙂 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUIXPG5J1gA

  7. As an NT mum to a 7 yr old autistic boy, I can safely say his passions have become my passions. I can reel off the Thomas the Tank Engine trains like a pro and when I spot a new Trackmaster engine I struggle to wait to buy it for him because I know how happy he will be. We are currently carrying around 10 toy dogs everywhere we go because that’s just his current “thing”. It makes him happy and makes him feel safe. Therefore it makes me happy – and truth be told it’s actually pretty cute. We rewind and watch the same 10 second clip of a YpuTube video again and again and again. I love that he wants to share those moments with me. I know Thomas the Tank engine is aimed at little kids. I know this because the clothing stops at around age 4 or 5. But he loves them and that’s all that matters. Yes I absolutely indulge his interests because I love seeing him happy doing his own quirky thing. He doesn’t follow the crowd, he has his own drumbeat and I happen to think that’s pretty cool.

  8. Pingback: Autism News: 2017/10/26 – Ada Hoffmann

  9. Thank you so much for your article, I wish non autistic people understood my special interests. There have been adults in my life who shamed me for liking kid shows. My autistic special interest/obsession since I was 12 is The Bugaloos it is a 1970’s children show created by Sid and Marty Krofft about four British singers and actors who live in a magical world called Tranquility Forest. The show’s premise is pretty much The Bugaloos helping out others and trying to avoid the evil witch named Benita Bizarre. The show has music and puppets and stuff and it’s very colorful. I love it, I always love anything with puppets.

    I also like the stop motion Rankin Bass holiday specials, I watch those every year. I also have a special interest in Nintendo video games like Animal Crossing and Chibi Robo. I think The Bugaloos helped me out by teaching me to believe in myself when others didn’t

  10. FINALLY somebody gets it! I love cartoons like Steven Universe and Gravity Falls despite being a teen, but despite these having numerous fan members it’s still seen as immature. Autistic girls are seen as obsessed when they like something, but autistic boys are seen as geniuses or eccentric when they do. It’s kind of a double standard.

  11. My interests are American Girl and Miraculous Ladybug. I know I’m 13 and both things are too old for me, but I love them and they cheer me up everyday. They make me, me.

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