Recognizing Autistic Interests as a Strength
If you ask a parent what the most important goal is for their child, they would probably say being happy and healthy. What things in life bring happiness and a sense of well-being? The answer to this question is often found through interests. Interests are a strength! Supporting an autistic person’s interests and passions are important because they are motivating, engaging, conversation starters, friendship builders, build skills, employable, meaningful, calming, enhancing, and expandable. Being able to pursue interests and enjoyable activities adds meaning and pleasure to a person’s life. A person who feels happy and fulfilled tends to be more flexible, adaptable, calm, content, and resilient.
The interests of autistic children with intellectual disability may take the form of repetitive behavior such a lining objects up, rewinding DVDs in slow motion, or moving a group of objects around in a specific pattern. Those without an intellectual disability may exhibit precocious competency.
You may sometimes hear autistic interests described as special interests. Autistic mom Danielle Sullivan describes special interests as when a person has an intense focus on a specific subject, and wants to learn about that subject, or think about that subject, above all else. She says autistic special interests are usually less socially-oriented, more circumscribed, and related to less common topics. They may have an intense focus on a specific topic that extends past the range what’s functionally useful, but does that really matter? There are many benefits to having intense interests therefore, they should be encouraged and supported.
A 2017 study of 80 autistic adults about the special interests found that 65 described their special interests as positive, 74 considered them calming, and 77 felt that children’s special interests should be encouraged. A 2018 study found that special interests had a positive impact on autistic adults and were associated with higher subjective wellbeing and satisfaction across specific life domains including social contact and leisure.
What are the benefits of interests?
Reduction of anxiety and stress – Pursuing an interest can be calming. Nothing feels better than engaging in something familiar and loved. When my daughter Julia is having anxiety spikes, she turns her focus to her favorite internet cats. This distraction can help her forget about what is bothering her.
Increasing meaningful social interaction – Interests can bring like-minded people together who can share experiences around things that excite them. Our son Marc loves classical music and enjoys attending concerts. He is able to converse with other concert goers about the music and performers. He saves the concert program and refers to that experience during his weekly tutoring session and other social groups that he attends.
Skill building – Engaging in interests can build skills. Marc loves watching period dramas which lead to him developing an interest in horseback riding. We enrolled him in lessons and he has become a very competent rider. His core strength has improved and he has learned to communicate with his horse through nonverbal gestures. His interest in horses has also lead him to read memoirs about farm life and attend open farm days in our province.
Employment – Temple Grandin is one of the great employment success stories around her interest in cattle, which lead to her designing cattle pen enclosures. She builds one third of North America’s cattle enclosures.
Intrinsic motivation – This means an inner drive or curiosity. Engaging in an interest is its own sense of reward, and this can support happiness.
Adding to leisure time – There should be time allotted in the day for leisure activities. Leisure activities connect us to family and community, develop skills, increase independence, and reduce stress. Exposure to a wide variety of activities and experiences broadens interests. Interests will also change over time so it’s important to keep expanding experiences for growth and development.
Curriculum enhancement – Interests can be used as an educational teaching tool. Almost any topic can be used to teach the curriculum. For example, a research project can be around a person’s interest. My daughter’s high school work experience was in a pet store to support her interest in cats. My son’s high school work experience was at the public library because he loved books at the numbers of the Dewy Decimal System.
Flow state – Engaging in interests can create a flow state. The benefits of a flow state are emotional regulation, increased motivation and feeling fulfilled and happy.
Expandable – Expanding on an interest can lead to new and exciting things and increase knowledge. My son’s love of classical music has helped him discover chamber music, the symphony, drum circles, choral singing, and dancing. He has also used music to enhance his enjoyment of activities such as yoga and meditation.
When to Be Concerned
There are times when engaging in 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 for a particular interest in the workplace or at an event. 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 to have out 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 activity in order to be present and engaged. 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 and also where those precious items are when they are out of view.
I have written about autistic inertia in a previous blog post. This is when an person experiences difficulty starting or stopping a task and wants to remain in a constant state. Inertia can be experienced while in a flow state, making it difficult to transition and move on to something else. Time to engage in an interest has to be managed in order to get other things done throughout the day.
An interest can sometimes morph into an obsession. An obsession is a form of anxiety disorder. Ambitious About Autism’s post Special Interests lists the following questions to ask to determine whether a behavior is an obsession:
- Is the behavior causing the person unhappiness – but they are unable to stop?
- It is creating issues for other people, for example siblings?
- Is it undermining their ability to learn? For instance, are they unable to concentrate on anything else at school?
- Is it limiting their ability to make friends or meet new people?
If this is the case, it may help to introduce structure around engaging in an interest such as allotting specific times for an interest on a visual schedule. Seek the help of a professional if you are not sure what to do and how to help.
Every autistic person is unique and will have their own interests. In caring and supportive roles to an autistic person, it is our job to help create a path that leads to a meaningful, rich life and support the things that support happiness and well-being. Having time to pursue an interest can make the day a little bit brighter and life a whole lot richer.
Laber-Warren, E. (May 2021) The benefits of special interests in autism. Spectrum News.
Sullivan, D. (2021) Autistic Special Interest: Secret Strength? (Special Interests in ASD). Neurodiverging – Coaching and Training for All Brains.
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