Are you wondering if you or your child are displaying an autism special interest or an ADHD hyperfixation? Read on to learn the difference.
Autistic special interests vs. ADHD hyperfixations
In the case of an autistic child with ADHD, differentiating between an autistic special interest and an ADHD hyperfixation isn’t the easiest feat. ADHD autistic adults struggle to discern the difference, too.
Autism special interests
Autistic people are motivated by special interests. Their entire life revolves around their special interests. They can learn everything there is to know about their special interests — only to want more and more and more.
Special interests in autistic people are oftentimes The Most Important Thing. Engaging in our special interests bring us joy, give us energy and help us self-regulate.
While some autistic people might have hobbies, special interests may instead take up too much space. It’s a hearty thing — like a love interest.
I’m personally obsessed with my special interests, even though they ruin relationships. I’ve lost friendships because I couldn’t stop talking about my cat, preferred to blog instead of hanging out, and quoted my favorite TV shows.
I’m also affected on a physical health level: I once developed a WordPress theme from scratch in 14 hours without sleep, food, water, and bathroom breaks. It wasn’t that I didn’t need those things — I just forgot that I needed them. At the 14-hour mark, I was too sick to sleep without eating, but couldn’t eat without vomitting.
For autistic people, our brains think special interests are The Most Important Thing and treats them that way. Nothing else matters, for the most part.
While this is cause for concern through a non-autistic lens, autistic people prefer to befriend people with shared interests. I have a few friends I only chat with when they’re engaging in my special interests. It’s not a socially acceptable friendship, but it works for us.
People with ADHD are motivated by dopamine. Hyperfixations consume an ADHD person’s time to the point that they might also destroy relationships and body function, but with different context.
ADHD hyperfixations can change daily and be dropped instantly. They do not necessarily remain a constant in a person with ADHD’s life, though they may be recurring.
The more they learn about it, the less dopamine the hyperfixation creates. Once they learn everything there is to know about it, the hyperfixation may be dropped and dismissed.
Hyperfixations in ADHD are more finite, niche obsessions. In a way, they feel “loud and fleeting”. It’s like having one piece of Halloween candy (hyperfixation) versus an entire bucket (special interest).
Autism special interests vs. ADHD hyperfixations
Although special interests and hyperfixations are used interchangeably in some parts of the neurodivergent community, they are not the same.
Special interests are usually more broad, like butterflies. Hyperfixations are more specific, like focusing on a specific type of butterfly.
A few of my special interests:
- my emotional support animal (ESA) cat, Galaxy
- blogging (all that which encompasses it)
- Camp Cretaceous
- How to Train Your Dragon franchise
My recurring hyperfixations:
- file folding my clothes
- nail care and nail art
- web design
Both autism special interests and ADHD hyperfixations are likely to fall in the event that it’s impossible to partake in them. This should not motivate you to prevent autistic people with or without ADHD from engaging in their special interests and/or hyperfixations!
Special interests and hyperfixations are important to keeping these neurodivergent individuals healthy.
An autistic person who cannot engage in their special interests freely will fall into depression because their special interests are so associated with their needs, which are not being met.
People with ADHD need dopamine. Hyperfixations are one of a few ways to obtain that dopamine, but they shouldn’t be restricted because neurodivergent people deserve joy, too.
Preventing autistic children with or without ADHD from engaging in their special interests and/or hyperfixations — when those obsessions are not harmful — creates trauma and shame that they will carry with them until they recovery from it.
What not to do with autistic special interests and ADHD hyperfixations
Knowing how important autistic special interests and ADHD hyperfixations are might motivate you to leverage these when disciplining your child. Do not do this.
Considering special interests and hyperfixations in the context of needs, grounding your child from them would be the equivalent of not allowing them to use the restroom as punishment.
Again: Special interests and hyperfixations in autistic and ADHD people help them fulfill needs. ADHD hyperfixations may be coping mechanisms or help them focus on other tasks. Autistic special interests help energize and self-regulate.
If my special interests were taken away from me, I would lose all motivation. My cat is my world, and I have no hope without her. I mean this with the utmost sincerity, seriousness and reality: An autistic person’s special interests motivate them to keep living.
Teach your child how to set boundaries with their obsessions
If you can’t ground your autistic/ADHD child from their special interests and/or hyperfixations, how do you enforce boundaries?
You don’t. At least, not your boundaries.
Teach your children healthy boundaries surrounding their obsessions. This looks like:
- Helping them set alarms/reminders for food, bathroom breaks, drinks, etc.
- Using water bottles with “levels”, whether by drinking times or game-like levels
- Praising them when they acknowledge their basic needs
- Partnering with them, so you both work together to meet your basic needs despite life happenings
If I had someone who praised me for remembering to use the restroom, despite being 31 years old, maybe I would remember it before I’m about to wet my pants.
With this framework, now you understand the different between autism special interests and ADHD hyperfixations. Use this better understanding to help yourself or your child to maintain healthy living while enjoying them.
Do you have a child with special interests or hyperfixations? Share about it in the comments below.
hey i’m just passing through, this came up on a web search result and i dont, like, go here, but i wanted to like. thank you! Thanks Jane Lively, this article really resonated with me, an autistic adult, who’s had special interests and (maybe?) hyperfixations forever but didnt have the words for them until like, high school. ..and only got a diagnosis last year. and, it’s just really nice to see this laid out, with the facts, like “hey this is a Need, don’t shame, don’t take away access, yes it might make some parts of life hellish but it Cant be like, beaten out, it makes the brain go brrrr which is Good so just support ur autistic buddy while they Deal.” and!!!!! and youve got suggestions on how to do that!!! i coulda used more reminders to eat and sleep for,,, most of my teen/adult life? heck, i could use em Now. anyway. but yeah thanks!!!! <3 this was a refreshingly non-patronizing non-sugar-coating article to come across by chance. wish you the best, Jane! and Galaxy too! <3
Jane E. Lively says
Thank you for the kind comment! I recently started using Finch, which is like a Tamagotchi for your to-do list. It sends notifications every 1-3 hours for motivation and reminders — you can set up which tasks you get reminders for. If you input my code into your tree town, you can add me and we can go on adventures together: SXYFVGHF9G (or click the link). They have little events where you can unlock goodies and micropets! I have premium because I want all the event goodies currently happening (and use some of the premium quizzes/check-ins to monitor my mental health), but it’s absolutely not required.
It’s the only task/reminder app that I actually listen to, because my lil’ Finch is soooo cute. Unlike Tamagotchi, Finches cannot die. I literally have the most basic of tasks, e.g. use the toilet, drink water, wake up, brush teeth, floss, mouthwash, take off socks before bed, feed Galaxy, water Galaxy, brush Galaxy, snack 1, snack 2, snack 3, snack 4, meal 1, meal 2, meal 3, etc.
Just remember to back it up via the settings, as it’s a secure app that doesn’t save to the cloud. x
Svetlana Sonday says
My mom wants to put me in a residential facility because I have autism and close my eyes with touch. Those centers are only for people with behavior and moral problems. They aren’t for high ASD people. People like me love Ukraine, love Earth, and want to save people. I belong with nice people. I love good morally sound people, such as Jane Lively. We are sane. We don’t belong with insane people! Stand with me!
Jane E. Lively says
High-functioning is really just high-masking. It’s not used in diagnostics. There is no such thing as “insane people”, either. Some people just need more help than others. Have you tried having a sit down with your mother to discuss both of your concerns? Seek out a mediator if possible. Therapists are the best people for this, but some local self-advocacy autistic chapters may offer this as well. I don’t know anything about your age or location, so check with your local municipality to determine your rights to refuse care/object to your parent’s decisions.
I was previously thought to be a high-functioning autistic person, but it was really just high-masking that started to unveil after I began working on my internalized ableism. Recently, I briefly considered putting myself into a residential facility just because life is so hard for autistic people and there are so few resources available to autistic adults in the “real world”.
P.S. For anonymous emails, it’d be better to use [email protected] if you don’t want yours shared at all. However, email addresses are not shared publicly or added to any list — it just helps ensure you will be notified when a reply like this one is sent.~