One of the classic signs of autism or Asperger's Sydrome (AS) is an intense interest in a particular topic. These are often referred to as obsessions but many people reject the term "obsessions" because it has a negative connotation. On the other hand, special interests provide individuals with autism and AS a way to relax, communicate, think and solve problems. Special interests, when incorporated in learning situations, help increase learning ability in weak subject areas.
Topics of interest can be about any subject. Girls with autism or AS tend to have more mainstream interests, such as animals. Boys often are interested in things that are science or technological in nature, such as computers, weather or dinosaurs. While it is true that everyone, both with and without autism, have interests that take up their time, it is the intensity of the interest that distinguishes interests in those with autism and those without. Nathan, who is 14, for example, is interested in weather. The moment Nathan wakes up, he looks out the window to see what the weather is like and writes it down in his weather notebook. He checks the various weather instruments he has hanging up, such as a barometer and a rain catcher that has been hung up outside his bedroom window. Nathan records all his information daily. While eating breakfast, Nathan watches the weather channel and then checks the daily TV schedule for any shows about weather, such as hurricanes or tornadoes. Most of Nathan's conversations include litanies about various weather patterns. Most of his activities involve weather, for example, during the summer Nathan attends a science camp that focuses on weather and he belongs to an after-school group that focuses on weather. He constantly reads books on storm systems.
This level of interest is not unusual in teens with autism or AS. While it can be frustrating to parents and siblings because conversations are dominated and vacations are often planned around the interest, there are benefits to these types of special interests:
Provide a way for your teen to relax. Time spent interacting with special interests can be calming, a time for your teen to forget about the pressures and frustrations of being in school or trying to keep up with social conversations. When interacting with the special interest, your teen can be himself, he doesn't need to try to impress anyone, fit in or remember all the rules of social interaction.
Gives them something to talk about. Teens with autism have a hard time knowing how to interact with their peers. They are not usually good at small-talk and don't know how to enter into conversations. Having an in-depth knowledge about a specific topic gives them something they are an "expert" at. They can, and often do, talk at length about it. While parents need to teach appropriate and inappropriate times to talk about special interests and teach how to ask questions or involve the other person, the knowledge they have can give them the confidence to talk with others.
Provides ways to introduce new topics. Every topic has both subtopics and related topics. Parents and teachers can use special interests to help build a teen's knowledge of other subjects. For example, Nathan, as we discussed previously, is interested in weather. His parents and teachers can help expand his interests by talking about geography and how it may have been impacted by weather, different cultures and how different parts of the world have traditions based on local weather.
Integrate into different subjects. When Nathan was younger, he loved learning about science, especially weather, but had trouble learning to read. One of Nathan's relatives gave him a book about weather and Nathan wanted to read it, even though it was well beyond his current reading level. His desire to read the entire book spurred his desire to read. Nathan's math teacher also integrated his interest in weather into daily math lessons to keep Nathan interested and involved.
Help to develop social interests. Nathan's mother looked into area clubs and organizations that centered around weather. Because the group talked about what interested him the most, Nathan found social interactions with the group easier. When social groups are centered around interests, rather than around conversation, it is easier for the teen with autism or AS to feel comfortable and to participate and helps increase their social awareness and social skills.
Published On: July 15, 2011