Embracing the Interests and Passions of Individuals with Autism, No Matter What They Are
I recently featured an article on Facebook about age appropriate interests written by Christine Motokane, a young adult with autism. Some of her interests were deemed “inappropriate for her age” by well meaning people around her. Christine’s mother became concerned about her childhood interests as they continued into her high school years. She hired a behaviorist to teach Christine what age appropriate interests were. The behaviorist created a “cool” and “not cool” chart for Christine’s interest. This exercise was to help Christine fit in better with classmates. It wasn’t until she was in college that her former interests began to surface again and she embraced them as a young adult. It also made her realize how destructive that therapy was to her well being. Christine says:
“I became anxious and second-guessed myself (which I still do today) when I started liking cartoons again. This is because when I was younger, I picked up on how it was considered “childish” to like cartoons such as Hello Kitty, “Frozen” etc. I thought I was regressing because for the last five or six years, I had interests that were more mainstream.”
Christine’s mother is now more accepting of her unconventional interests. With the support of others, she is slowly learning to accept that her interest in characters is just a part of what makes her unique.
How Interests are Categorized into Age Appropriateness
Merchandise is often grouped according to age and gender. For example, dolls and Barbies are displayed in a section aimed at girls. The boxes are in colors that would be considered feminine like pink or other soft pastel colors. Toys like cars and building sets are grouped together in boxes with bold, strong colors aimed at boys. Children’s clothing looks quite different from adult clothing. Children’s clothing often features characters or cartoons on T-shirts, for example, and adult clothing doesn’t. Commercials for children’s products have cute background music or animation. The language level is also geared for children.
We are socialized to think certain interests are tied to specific genders and age groups, but it you look past that you’ll discover many adults like things that are primarily geared for children. When we were in Disneyland in June, there were lots of groups of adults without kids there enjoying the same rides, interaction with characters, and bought character T-shirts and Mickey Mouse ears for themselves.
There are Lego Clubs for adults. Comic characters have mass appeal for all age groups. The Muppets are loved by adults. As human beings, we are drawn to things and can’t always say why we like a certain thing – we just do. We accept that from ourselves, but not always from people with with autism.
Embrace Interests in a Positive Way
It can be worrisome for parents and those who support individuals with autism if they have interests that are not deemed age appropriate or are unconventional. No one can help what they are drawn to so we need to embrace interests in a positive way.
1. Motivating – Motivation is a key tool for wanting to acquire new information and attending to a task. Most of us will devote more time and energy to something that interests us rather than a task that we are told to do. We are more apt to pursue or stay with something that interests us.
2. Engaging – You will have a higher level of participation if a person is interested in the activity. They will also stick with the activity longer.
3. Conversation Starters – who doesn’t like to talk about what they love? Talking about someone’s interest can encourage them to speak more.
4. Friendship Builders – Our friends tend to share the same interests as ourselves. My daughter loves cats and likes to spend time with people who also have cats like herself. I have another friend on the spectrum who feels that way about dogs.
5. Skill Building – Interests can also be a platform to learning new skills. My daughter loves the Muppets and puppets in general. She now takes private puppeteer lessons which has increased her social and conversation skills, not to mention her singing ability.
6. Employable – An interest in something can lead to a job or work experience. My son loves to organize things into categories. This has turned into a job at the local food bank because he uses that interest to organize the food into categories in the storage room. He has also learned that items are grouped into categories in the grocery store so he now knows where to find things. My daughter’s interest in cats has turned into a job at a local cat charity twice a week. An interest in numbers can lead to a job at the library as all books all classed using the Dewy Decimal System.
7. Meaningful – In the education system, there are curriculum guidelines for teachers to follow, but you can use those guidelines to incorporate an interest. For example, if a Language Arts unit requires a student to be able to write a report, let them do a report on a topic that interests them. You are still building the skill even though it may be around a different topic that than the rest of the class.
You can also offer a different way to demonstrate knowledge. When my daughter was in Grade 4, she had to do a report on a religious parable. She just couldn’t present in front of the class reading aloud. The teacher allowed her to used her beloved Playmobil characters and photography skills to create her own visual presentation of the parable. She even added sound effects for the storm. Her classmates loved it, she was still included, and it was satisfying and engaging for my daughter.
8. Calming – Nothing feels better than engaging in something familiar and loved. My daughter has trouble falling asleep – her brown stuffed bunny helps her. My son is so excited when flying that he has to hold a model of the plane he is in to keep himself calm. He also mediates weekly to his favorite classical music pieces.
9. Enhancing – My son loves chamber music. He now does yoga with chamber music playing in the background. My daughter has her computer desk surrounded by Playmobil sets and her Bad Cat desk calendar. She likes to look at these things when working on the computer.
10. Expandable – I have written about expanding interests to increase knowledge, keep lives interesting, and to foster growth. Exposure to many different things will expand interests and lead to new and exciting things. Take an interest to introduce something new. My son loves planes so he went to an Air Museum and the Military Museum which introduced him to new topics around planes. My daughter’s love of the Muppets took us on our first family trip to Los Angeles to see the Muppets live at the Hollywood Bowl. The whole trip was so motivating because that event was scheduled at the half way point of the week so there was opportunity for the build up to the show and expansion of the interest after the show.
When Interests Become Too Distracting
There are times when an interest has to be put aside to do a less preferred task such as household chores or homework. The situation or context may not be appropriate either like the workplace or at a concert. My daughter loved to bring her Playmobil characters with her to high school which was fine, but she had to keep them in her pocket or backpack as they were too distracting during classes. My son loves to travel everywhere with a car from Disney’s Cars or a Thomas the Tank Engine. He has to leave them in his coat or backpack at his workplace in order to get his work tasks done. My adult children know there will be a time and place to access their favorite things, but not every situation is appropriate to do so and they’ve learned that over time. They know they will have access to them at a later time.
Every person is unique and has their own interests. In caring and supportive roles to a person with autism, it is our job to help create a path that leads to a meaningful, rich life and support the things that provide happiness.
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