When I got confirmation that I have an Autistic Spectrum Condition in 2021, one of the immediate benefits was that it helped me to understand what my Special Interests are and how they – when combined with Autism – have helped shape my life. For the rest of this blog, I’m going to call a Special Interest a SpIn for several reasons; it saves typing, it helps me come up with a catchy headline and one of my son’s SpIns is… spinning things around. He’s like quite a lot of autistic people in that respect.

My main special interest is football.  If you’ve has spent more than a few seconds browsing this site, you already knew that. Since I was 10 years old, the sport sometimes called ‘the beautiful game’ has been a huge part of my identity; there have been times when it also provided my livelihood. Getting my diagnosis helped to put into context a passion which my parents once called an obsession but is in fact my most enduring SpIn.

According to the National Autistic Society:

Many autistic people have intense and highly focused interests, often from a fairly young age. These can change over time or be lifelong. Autistic people can become experts in their special interests and often like to share their knowledge. A stereotypical example is trains but that is one of many. Greta Thunberg’s intense interest, for example, is protecting the environment.

Like all people, autistic people gain huge amounts of pleasure from pursuing their interests and see them as fundamental to their wellbeing and happiness.

Being highly focused helps many autistic people do well academically and in the workplace but they can also become so engrossed in particular topics or activities that they neglect other aspects of their lives.

I have, at times, done well academically and in the workplace, especially when my SpIn was also my job. However, I’d advise caution if you’re a young autistic person thinking about starting a career. My five and a half years with the Middlesex FA were enormously rewarding but I got so wrapped up in doing the best possible job I burnt myself out. Twice.

As for the stereotype that autistic people love trains? Well, I checked my bookshelves this morning and there are about 40 books about the history of specific railways (particularly the London Underground), epic journeys and how the construction of rail networks transformed various parts of the world. But nothing about the locomotives that run on rails (that is, the actual trains). Reading this paragraph back to myself, it might be the most autistic thing I’ve ever written and I genuinely can’t tell whether I’ve pushed back against the stereotype or reinforced it. I like railways, rather than trains, but as a SpIn, they’re quite new. Football is something I’ve immersed myself for decades.

The thing is, having that really deep, intense interest changed my life. Being the one kid at school who watched the local team established a distinct identity for me during Secondary School. Football helped me make friends. It gave me skills. It took me out of the tiny town I grew up in and to new places. For a while, it paid my rent.

However, at times football has been a malign influence. There have been times when I placed more importance on my SpIn than on relationships, or career development. There have been periods of intolerable stress caused by football. These days, I accept those periods as part of the relationship between the game and myself and acknowledge that, for all the good it has done me, there has also been harm. That has been part of the ‘unmasking’ process I’ve been going through since diagnosis.

These days, I try to keep my SpIn in proportion to the rest of my life. I still watch my local non-League club, which these days is Prescot Cables, when I can, but I’ve scaled things back. I’ve stopped putting together the club’s programme for a start, as well as stepping down from voluntary administrative roles in grassroots football. Away games are a no-no because they wipe out your entire Saturday and midweek games are only to be attended under very special circumstances because the logistics of getting to and from them, plus the changes to our son’s bedtime routine a night match triggers are daunting, to say the least.

Best of all, these days I get to share my SpIn. Our eldest daughter, Lilly, is 14 and while she isn’t diagnosed yet (it is much harder to get girls onto neurodevelopmental assessment pathways than boys), she displays a number of traits that suggest she’s autistic too. One is her SpIns.

Lilly has a passion for photography, so I asked her if she fancied having a go at taking pictures at a Cables game. She absolutely loved the experience of being on the touchline and it turns out she has a good eye for these things. The photo accompanying this blog was one of hers; I love how she’s caught Kyle Sambor (10) driving towards the goal and how the floodlights shimmer off his shirt. If I was being picky, I might say that the crowd in the background was too blurry, but the counter-argument to that point is that the blur shows how fast the players were moving.  Then I’d point out that she’s 14 and that this was taken at her fifth game ever, so she’s still learning.

Lilly has been ‘bitten by the bug’ and now counts down the days until the next Saturday home match. It’s ace; we share in the communal experience of being at the match, but experience it in completely different ways. She’s on the touchline, snapping away and I’m at the top of the Stand, either providing Internet Radio commentary or acting as the Public Address Announcer for the crowd in attendance. Win, lose or draw, we both get huge joy from matchdays, with the added bonus of getting out of the house for some fresh air.

If you’re autistic, or are reading this because someone in your life is autistic, my message is a simple one. Embrace the SpIns! I mean, you shouldn’t let them completely take over your life, like I did, but having a passion for something can be tremendously motivating. No matter how depressed or hungover I was, the twentysomething me would be up at the crack of dawn every Saturday morning to shower, shave and put on a suit, ready for that afternoon’s match. And the friendships forged within football clubs have proved incredibly enduring. Whether it’s football, photography, Pokémon or something else entirely, all SpIns are valid and worth celebrating.