What is a special interest?
Repetitive behaviors and restricted interests are some of the most recognized and defining symptoms of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) according to the American Psychiatric Association (2000). The definition of special interests for children with autism, also centres around the word restricted. And if you ask parents about these special interests, they’re likely to add the word intense to any description.
So if by definition, kids with autism have special and intense interests that are restricted, is this any different to the special interests of neurotypical kids? Most people pursue their interests with intensity, but according to research (Anthony et al., 2013) high functioning individuals with ASD had more intense and interfering interests than neurotypical individuals. This same study found the type and intensity (but not the number of) interests differed between high-functioning children with autism and neurotypical children.
If parents accept their kids with autism may have different, and very intense, interests—is this something to worry about? Or should they subscribe to the view that such interests could potentially be developed to career-level in future?
When Dr. Temple Grandin was asked about those who would seek to eradicate autism, she responded: “Who do you think made the first stone spears? The Asperger guy. If you were to get rid of all the autism genetics, there would be no more Silicon Valley.” (Grandin, 2010).
These remarks speak to the intensity and skill brought to interests by high functioning individuals on the spectrum. If your child with autism wants to spend all his/her time on computers, should you let them be, just in case they turn out to be a technology savant? Or should you control the interests of your autistic child to ensure special interests do not interfere with his/her social development and interaction?
In this article I will look at special interests as they relate to children with autism. I will look at how special interest may be channelled to your child’s advantage and how parents can help their child find balance, without sacrificing special interests.
An interesting obsession…
The word “obsession” used to have a negative connotation— think stalking fan with a dark room full of torn newspaper clippings. These days, many of us use the term lightly, to describe our love for a box set or a new coffee concoction.
But despite the term’s new mellow connotation, obsession by definition is something that the mind has a preoccupation with. This may be the reason autistic people sometimes call their special interests an obsession. For adults on the spectrum, their specialized interest can be almost addictive. Spending time on these interests can invoke feelings of love and deep contentment.
The autistic mind processes information differently to the neurotypical mind. An interesting study (Baron-Cohen et al., 2009) argues that an association between autism and talent begins at a sensory level and it includes great attention to detail and a cognitive style called hyper-systemizing.
The authors explain systemizing as “recognizing repeating patterns” in stimuli or the need to analyze and construct systems. Keeping this theory in mind, parents should not be surprised when their child with autism approaches his/her special interest a little differently to a neurotypical child. With razor sharp attention to detail and the drive to construct systems, their way of dealing with a train set will differ from that which we expect.
These differences should not be seen as a deficit, but rather the key to unlocking the potential of neurodivergent individuals. For example, obsessive tendencies could be cultivated to breed success in job sectors considered tedious by neurotypical individuals.
When researchers looked at special or focused interests among neurotypical children, they recorded around 30% as exhibiting intense interest (DeLoache et al., 2007). In contrast, according to Attwood (2003), when dealing with children with ASD, researchers observed an incredible 90% developing intense interests (Jordan & Caldwell-Harris, 2012).
A particular drive to understand special interests in children with autism exists—it could lead to the development of better educational and therapeutic programs to acquire vital social and communication skills (Jordan & Caldwell-Harris, 2012).
Using special interests to your child’s advantage
As one of the best known autism self-advocates, Dr. Temple Grandin, has insider knowledge to help those on the spectrum thrive. In a presentation (Grandin, 2017) she stressed the importance of focusing on the strengths of children with autism. These strengths should be identified, and built upon.
Dr. Grandin shares how she used to love drawing horses’ heads repeatedly as a child. She was not discouraged from doing so, instead she was pushed to paint other works of art too. She believes her art skills led to her work designing livestock equipment.
Parents should identify and build on the strengths their children may have; whether it is in music, math, or art. Children will often excel in the areas where their interest is most intense. A great way to help them thrive is to build on interests and strengths, and incorporate these skills to help them develop in other areas.
A study by Winter-Messiers (2007) stressed the importance of treating special interests seriously. The study showed that, when children with ASD talked about their special interests; their behavior, communication, social, and emotional skills improved.
The study, From Tarantulas to Toilet Brushes: Understanding the Special Interest Areas of Children and Youth with Asperger Syndrome (Winter-Messiers, 2007), emphasized the critical need for teachers to try and understand and find value in the special interests of children on the spectrum.
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Before delving further into the leveraging of special interests; it may be helpful to list a few such interests. Just like kids on the spectrum differ vastly, so their special interests vary greatly. There are, however, a few special interests that come up frequently in autism special interest forums.
Some of the more common special interests of children on the spectrum are:
- Trains (this seems to be a particularly alluring fascination, many parents of children with autism muse about the intensity of their children’s focus when it comes to trains)
- Math, particularly tables
If parents and teachers accept and encourage special interests in children with ASD, how can they leverage the special interest to help children thrive? Experts agree that some creativity may be necessary, teachers and parents need to work together to incorporate “obsessions” to stimulate learning in other areas.
One of the best examples of using special interest to facilitate social development in children with autism can be found in the US, where the New York Transit Museum’s Subway Sleuths program helps kids develop an expertise in trains. The afterschool program (for children on the spectrum) uses their intense fascination with trains to develop social and communication skills.
According to their website: “Subway Sleuths is an afterschool program at the New York Transit Museum that uses a shared interest in trains among kids on the autism spectrum as a means to encourage peer-to-peer interaction, navigate social situations, and develop confidence through goal-oriented sessions. Using a strength-based approach, participants explore the Transit Museum’s content and collection, sharing their enthusiasm with others while engaging in transit-themed games and activities. By collaborating as a group, Sleuths practice different forms of social engagement.” (https://www.nytransitmuseum.org/learn/subwaysleuths/)
A program like this is doing exactly what research suggests—building on strengths and working on development in a friendly setting. Traditional classrooms can be a nightmare for children with ASD, their senses are overwhelmed and the social expectations may induce anxiety. But when kids are engaged in their special interest (like learning about trains), dysfunction and anxiety decreases. With their focus on something they love, they may be more open to learning social skills.
There are many more examples of clubs and organizations incorporating lego, maps, and animals to leverage special interest for children on the spectrum. These organizations are stepping away from the old model where autistic “obsessions” were seen as a negative pattern of behavior to be changed. Instead research is starting to show that neurodivergent individuals have different strengths to offer the world—we just have to find the best way to capitalize on those strengths.
How much interest is too much?
If you’re encouraging your child to find special interests and you’re leveraging those interests in positive ways; you may still be concerned about the obsessive way your child approaches his/her interests. There are some things to watch out for, and parents should involve professionals when special interests interfere with your child’s daily life in a negative way.
Special interest can benefit your child with autism in many ways but these interests need to be in balance with other areas of daily life. We may be using obsession in a more positive manner to speak about intense preoccupation, but the following signs may indicate your child needs help (from you or a professional) to find balance:
- Is the intensity of his/her approach to a special interest making it increasingly difficult to stop when they need to?
- Is he/she resisting learning in areas other than the area of interest?
- Is the interest causing friction or disruption in your family?
- Is the special interest interfering with enjoyment of other activities? If his/her special interest is causing him/her to lose interest in activities they used to enjoy, the child may need some time away from special interests to rediscover other pleasures
- Is the interest interfering with social development? Your child may feel safe and soothed in his/her special interest “world”; it could lead to avoidance of the real world, especially social interactions that seem scary
Your child may need help finding balance. The best approach would be for parents and teachers (or professionals) to shape the use of the special interest to benefit the child in other areas of his/her life.
For example, if your child’s special interest involves trains you could incorporate the interest in the following ways:
- They could write or talk about trains for school projects. Special interests may reduce school assignment anxiety, inspiring future confidence
- You could search out social opportunities based on his/her interests. While clubs like the above mentioned Subway Sleuths may not be available in your area, parents could be proactive in finding or starting special interest groups, maybe even online if you live in a remote area. Children with autism sometimes struggle to make friends, a shared special interest could spark a new friendship
- There are some things children hate doing, a special interest could be the perfect reward to help in those areas. An even better way to deal with motivation would be to incorporate the special interest in the activity he/she does not like. Practising eye contact may be much more exciting if it’s done on a train, or even better… with a conductor!
A last area of concern that deserves addressing is when your child’s special interest (or in this case obsession may actually be the more appropriate word) is a person. In this case, you should consider getting professional help to keep your child safe.
The future is interesting…and neurodivergent
Conversations about the value of neurodivergent minds, and the way society will benefit from different ways of thinking, are escalating. Children with autism have a lot to offer the world and, to unlock their potential, we should empower them by building on their strengths. For far too long the emphasis has been on deficits and how to fix them. Research suggests many ways to build on the strengths of the autistic mind—one being the leveraging of special interests.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (fourth ed., text rev.) Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association; 2000.
Anthony, L. G., Kenworthy, L., Yerys, B. E., Jankowski, K. F., James, J. D., Harms, M. B., Martin, A., & Wallace, G. L. (2013). Interests in high-functioning autism are more intense, interfering, and idiosyncratic than those in neurotypical development.Development and psychopathology, 25(3), 643–652. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579413000072
Attwood, T. (2003). Understanding and Managing Circumscribed Interests. In M. Prior (Ed.), Learning and behavior problems in Asperger syndrome (p. 126–147). Guilford Press.
Baron-Cohen, S., Ashwin, E., Ashwin, C., Tavassoli, T., & Chakrabarti, B. (2009). Talent in autism: hyper-systemizing, hyper-attention to detail and sensory hypersensitivity.Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 364(1522), 1377–1383. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2008.0337
Grandin T. My path through life with autism. Presented at: U.S. Psychiatric and Mental Health Congress; Sept. 16-19, 2017; New Orleans.
Grandin, T. (2010). The World Needs all Kinds of Minds. TED Talk.
Jordan CJ, Caldwell-Harris CL. (2012). Understanding differences in neurotypical and autism spectrum special interests through Internet forums. Intellect Dev Disabil. 2012 Oct;50(5):391-402. doi: 10.1352/1934-9556-50.5.391. PMID: 23025641
Winter-Messiers, M. A. (2007). From Tarantulas to Toilet Brushes: Understanding the Special Interest Areas of Children and Youth With Asperger Syndrome. Remedial and Special Education, 28(3), 140–152. https://doi.org/10.1177/07419325070280030301