Let’s Talk Autism, Special Interests & College Social Life

Autism, special interests, and college social life. In a companion-post Justin Robbins writes about how special interests can give a stronger focus and greater purpose to your academic pursuits. As promised, here he continues lionizing special interests, with a focus on socializing. Depending on your interests and perspective, this is either the fun part of the scary part. Maybe both.

As other contributors on STS have written, clubs and student groups are a major part of campus life. Compared to clubs in K-12, they’re better funded, have a larger student body to draw from, and are home to more mature and passionate people (more on that later). There are also a lot of them; even a modestly-sized school can have dozens and dozens of student organizations. These clubs will run the gamut and you should absolutely look into them, because the odds are pretty high that at least one of them (and probably more) will match one of your special interests.

I have found clubs complement my difficulties with social skills. I have difficulty figuring out the proper window of opportunity for many social interactions (it’s definitely a moving target). I get lost in the current of neurotypicals. Even when I do know that suchandsuch is a good context, the actual navigating of said interaction, finding the right time to talk, measuring reaction, etc., is incredibly difficult. And then, if I clear that, I constantly worry about the balance between imposing yourself in the conversation too much versus withdrawing yourself and not getting any benefit from the social interaction in the first place. A student club helps with all of this. At a specific time and place, there will be a specific activity based around something I love. The other people there also have that interest, meaning that I can talk to them about it and not be penalized for an inappropriate topic. In fact, the other people not only have that interest, but likely would be perfectly happy to discuss it, given the context.

Pretty soon, I found myself in the Sci-Fi and Fantasy Society, Anime Brigade (which included a Valentine’s playthrough of Hatoful Boyfriend), History Society (a subject I was never able to talk about for fun in high school), president of the Tabletop Club (which kindled one of my current high-interest areas), and co-founder of the Coalition for Autism Support at Tufts (one of the only autistic-led groups about autism on any campus). I think I found some niches for myself.

Special interests don’t have to be confined to club meetings, though; they permeated my entire social life at Tufts, and for the better. The other people at college made that possible. In general, people are better in college than you might expect. For all the parties and sports teams and the like, my peers were just better people than what I had seen in high school. Perhaps it was sampling bias, but even then, the people I interacted with, not just who I called my friends, created a better environment. Not only were there more people who shared a special interest with me, but the ones who didn’t thought no less of me for having them. In fact, they thought it was interesting, because they had interests of their own, and we had a shared experience that way, autism or not.

By the same token, of course, you should be willing to listen to other people’s interests. That reciprocity is how friendships, and new interests, grow. Plus it follows the golden rule: treating others the way you want to be treated. Think of how awful it is when people think really caring about something, or having an interest that isn’t sufficiently “normal,” is a contemptible thing. Let’s all do something about that, shall we?

In college, if you have a high interest area, you are able to pursue it. Understanding and embracing one’s own special interests can make college less overwhelming and a hell of a lot more fun. Your interests don’t make you a problem; they make you. And they can bring you to heights you could have never thought of prior. It requires effort, endurance, and more than a little flexibility, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What about you? How have your interests led to practical or personal success? Let us know!

You might also like this in-depth overview for disabled students on joining college clubs.

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Justin Robbins is currently interning with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation in Florida, where he works in the Wildlife and Habitat Management Program. He is a recent graduate of Tufts University, having double majored in biology and history. In addition to being an advocate for other autistic people, he enjoys modern board games, great worldbuilding, and truly awful puns.

1 Comment

  1. I’ve always found it easiest to make friends who share the same interests as me! It was much easier to connect to the people I met on campus who we had something instantly to talk about – rather than having to make small talk for ages waiting to see if anything clicked.

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