The Holidays and Collecting Joy

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It’s the holiday season. Not everyone has a holiday to celebrate this time of year, but the many that do feel a special magic in the final few months of the year. Thanksgiving already had me feeling that, and so I wanted to write about something positive for my article in December.

I like to think that the things I choose to blog about are important issues, but I also tend to focus on the negative. While writing another blog post, I noticed how negative the writing felt, and questioned if this was what I should be devoting my energy to all the time. So, as a gift to myself, this month I’m going to be writing about something far less serious. Something that makes me happy.

This tangentially holiday-related blog is about special interests and gift-giving. To get to how these two things go together you will, as is often the case, need to get through some ramblings from me first. I’m going to talk about special interests, my latest special interest, and finally just how this all relates to the holidays.

Special interests are something you’ll hear talked about a lot in many autistic spaces. Often ill-defined, sometimes used interchangeably with “hyperfixation” (ostensibly an interest that is all-consuming but only for a much more temporary period), it is nonetheless clearly considered to be a core aspect of the autistic experience. We’ve all got at least one, or it’s at least assumed so. But what is a special interest?

Simply put, I would say a special interest isn’t much different from a hobby (though some on the spectrum may turn it into a career as well). The label suggests something intrinsically different in how an autistic person engages in a special interest vs. how a neurotypical person engages in a hobby. However, looking into the term, it seems to me there is little difference between someone with a special interest and an intensely devoted hobbyist or enthusiast. Rather, the distinction is made more because those with autism are simply much less likely to restrain their obsession with something they enjoy. Especially in our younger years, we often lack an understanding or awareness that others do not share our passions and thus do not want to hear an unprompted 1-hour speech about the long and unique history of how the housecat was domesticated (for example). I think this leads us to seem uniquely consumed by our interests. The reality is that we simply don’t keep that side of ourselves compartmentalized and contained in the same way neurotypicals might out of consideration for others’ assumed lack of interest.

I think it can be argued that this lack of restraint can be a positive. It often leaves those on the spectrum free to pursue what they love to the fullest extent they can. By contrast, a neurotypical person might be held back by the fear of being judged. Thus cheating themselves out of the full pursuit of whatever brings them joy.

I’ve often felt left out of the “cool kids” club of autistic special interests. I’ve always thought that portrayals of autism from both media and even other real people on the spectrum made it seem so cool. As if autism gave you the power to become an expert in some niche but interesting topic. However, I largely have almost no consistent special interests in my life. I tend to jump from hyperfixation to hyperfixation, becoming obsessed with something before eventually phasing it out of my life as my interest wanes. Or it becomes just a regular hobby or interest, something I am only casually into. Even my few lifelong special interests, like cats, feel almost too stereotypical to be interesting (jokes about cats and folks on the spectrum tend to write themselves). And unlike many media attempts to portray special interests, I’m still not equipped to start spouting off completely memorized encyclopedic knowledge off the top of my head. I think if you do have that level of mastery over a special interest, then you should be proud.

Lately, though, I have been developing a special interest that feels suitably niche and worthy of earning me that “autistic weirdo” cachet that I’ve otherwise been lacking in the special interest department. I joke of course, but lonely as a niche special interest can be at times it also can come with the feeling of being in a cool secret club only you know about. It helps if you have friends and/or family willing to let you ramble about it.

You see, I have begun collecting button pins. It’s a twist I don’t think I would have previously seen coming, because if I’ve shown any such interest at all it’s been in enamel pins. That kind of pin has certainly become very popular to collect, with many independent artists creating extremely beautiful designs. But I resisted getting into them, as even small enamel pins come with price tags that can quickly add up into something big. Plus, the widespread selling of them and the sheer number of designs available made them terrifyingly tempting impulse buys. So, while I could feel a pull toward them, I had decided this was a rabbit hole I didn’t want to jump down.

In this way, button pins kind of snuck up on me. I originally bought a few to support an artist I loved. She had them in her shop, they were affordable and sparkly with designs (featuring cats!) that appealed to me, so I bought them. I liked the look of them, and I enjoyed using them to accessorize some of my clothing (one of them now has a permanent residence on a jacket of mine due to looking so good on it). That could have been the end of it though. Until pride month came.

This year’s pride month was the first time I planned to attend a pride event with a friend. I kind of enjoyed the idea of getting some bi-pride paraphernalia to wear. But what? Button pins seemed obvious. They were cheap, and plenty were being made by queer artists that I could support. Plus, I already knew I liked accessorizing with them. So, I bought a few. At first, I actually wasn’t certain I liked all of them. Some of them looked smaller or just different than I thought they would once I got them in person (I’ve always preferred bigger buttons, though I’ve come to appreciate all shapes and sizes). Still, on the day of the pride event, I decorated my blue denim bag with them and had fun doing it! Plus, I thought the buttons looked great. The pride event turned out to be something of a bust (we messed up and arrived way too late), but fortunately, that’s not an important part of this story.

Since then, I continued to buy pins from artists on Etsy and decorate that bag with them. Once I realized some of my pins were receiving micro-scratches, I even bought my first ita bag (a bag with an insert and clear window for displaying pins) to display them without worry. I find arranging ita inserts to be a lot of fun. I often try to do a theme every time, sometimes asking friends for suggestions. Even the fact that I must disassemble the previous pin arrangement to make a new one isn’t a bad thing. It reminds me of the Buddhist principle of accepting impermanence by (in some practices) creating something that will inevitably be changed or destroyed (such as sand mandalas). Plus, I get to support small artists by buying their pins, which is a plus to me.

I’ve also begun to learn more about the history of button pins, and I even hope to try making my own someday! However, button pin machines can be quite expensive, so I’ve figured out how to make some “fake” button pins that look like real button pins at first glance, though they’re made with epoxy resin stickers glued to pin backs.

So, how does any of this relate to the holiday season?

Thinking about my love of collecting these pins and how much I’ve enjoyed my continually developing interest in them reminded me of a tip I’ve heard on a sort of “life hack” podcast I sometimes listen to. In the “Be a good gift recipient” episode of her Before Breakfast podcast, Laura Vanderkam points out that one benefit to collecting something is that those around you always know how to get you a gift you’ll (probably) like. She even encourages trying to start a collection of something if you don’t have one already. I know I’ve experienced this phenomenon myself. While I sometimes struggle to think of good gifts, one of my aunts has always been easier to gift to for this very reason. She loves owls, so I’ve always known that if I can’t think of anything else then at least anything owl-themed is sure to be received warmly. I don’t know if anyone in my life will get me button pins, I have plenty of other things I want this year, but I’d be happy if any of them did.

If you’re already open with others about your special interests, then I think this is something you can reflect on as another positive aspect of them. I’m sure you can think of times when people have given you something special interest related and you’ve loved them for it. Celebrate those memories. If you tend to keep your special interests to yourself, maybe take this piece of information as an encouragement to share what you love with others. Even if you worry about bothering people or that they don’t care, at the very least knowing there’s something you’ll always love receiving is info that’s useful to them too. Don’t be afraid to be honest about what’s important to you.

The holidays aren’t just about gifts, but I admit they’re one of my favorite parts of the season. Right after spending quality time with family, of course. Giving gifts and receiving them, I love it all. So, I hope you appreciate my tip for the season: don’t hesitate to let people know about what you love. The people who care about you want to make you happy with a gift you’ll appreciate, so there’s no reason not to try to make it easier for them!


Rachel is a Jewish bisexual autistic woman (she/her) with ADHD in her twenties. She loves writing and can always be found with her nose in a book! Her plan for the future is to earn her Psy. D. in clinical psychology. This interested in psychology started as a way to help her understand people better and to figure out what it was about others I kept not getting. It is also something deeply linked with her self-advocacy. There is a gap in communication between the autistic community and providers, and she want to help bridge it and challenge others to see things from different perspectives.

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