By: Amy Langston
Autistic people are known for their diverse and passionate special interests. In the past, these interests were often labeled as “obsessions,” but it is more appropriate to now identify them as topics and activities that spark fascination and creativity in the autistic person. An autistic person’s investment in their special interests is, in many cases, an essential part of how they integrate and connect to their world. Their special interest becomes their way of applying their skills, talents, and thoughts. It is for all these reasons that I believe it is vital to nurture an autistic person’s special interests.
I began studying world religions as a high school student. The wealth of new information I was learning about the world and about people made the interest very compelling for me. My study of religion not only honed my writing and research skills; I visited as many different religious communities as I could, which gave me intercultural and social communication skills. I found that I had an intuition for understanding religions, and I took that with me to complete my B.A. and M.A. degrees in religion. Since that time, I have taught class sessions and written articles about religion. I’ve even been able to combine my interest in religions with my focus on autism advocacy, so that religious communities can create inclusive spaces for disabilities. I am only one example of how autistic special interests can become a force for good.
So, how do you do it? The first thing you can do is encourage your child’s curiosity. A great way to do this is to expose them to reading early on. Before they are able to read on their own, get them picture books on a variety of subjects. When they’re a little older, consider getting them their own library card. Hopefully with the reading and exploration they get, they can land on something that ignites that flame of interest inside of them.
Once your child has decided on their interest, you can use that interest to illustrate concepts and ideas to them. If they are having difficulty grasping their lessons in school, it might become more fun if you connect their special interest with what they’re learning. For example, if your child is interested in flowers, you could do math problems involving flowers, study the importance of flowers in art or history, and learn the biology of flowers with diagrams and physical inspection of flowers. Autistic people can understand things better when they can analogize it with what they know about their special interest. Experiential opportunities for exploring the interest can be both helpful and exciting for autistic people. Consider if your child might join a club or organization or meet local people who share the same interest they do. That can be a doorway into refining their social skills.
What this can, hopefully, also do is expand your child’s world, because it is important for their skill development that they be able to communicate about and perform a range of tasks. Your child’s special interest should be an important part of their life, but not the totality of what they do. It’s a good practice to monitor how much time your child is spending on their interest, and if you could use that interest to gradually introduce other peripheral interests that they could engage in.
For autistic children and adults, their special interests are their window into the world. As your autistic loved one’s community and allies, your commitment to growth of their special interest will contribute their ongoing happiness and sense of purpose.
Amy Langston was born, raised in, and a current resident of central North Carolina. She was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at age ten. She holds B.A. and M.A. degrees in religious studies, her special interest. Amy’s passion since the age of five has been writing, and she enjoys writing articles, public speaking, copyediting books and articles, and autism advocacy in professional capacities. Amy’s second love is traveling, which enhances her interest in world cultures, geography and anthropology. Her other interests include etymology, astronomy, watching movies, theatre, ice cream, photography, ambient music, trees, and pears. To learn more about Amy, visit her website here: http://www.amylangston.com/