Why You Should Encourage Your Child’s Specialized Interests
(Even if you Don’t Understand Them)
We all have interests, don’t we? Human beings are created to notice things in the world around us, to appreciate beauty, intricacy, patterns. One person may stop to watch a flock of geese fly overhead. Another may find beauty in a cash register receipt with a sum that is a palindrome (like $41.14) or entirely in binary (like $110.10).
We impose our own value judgments when we say that the pattern in a flower or seashell is beautiful, but the pattern in a series of numbers like Pi, or the way gravity and wind affect raindrops, or the intricacy of the lines on the palm of a hand, is weird.
Temple Grandin talks about using autistic kids’ special interests as motivation in Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism by Dr. Temple Grandin and Sean Barron. Her own special interests in building things and in animals led to her career as an Associate Professor of Animal Science and an architect for the cattle industry. She writes,
Finding what motivates a child, what makes the hard work worth doing, is largely about being a good detective and really looking at who your child is and what types of things naturally capture his attention.”
Dr. Grandin recommends that parents and professionals put aside their preconceived notions and try to look at the world through their child’s eyes.
Some people support specialized interests in their children with autism only when they can see a way that the interest could someday lead to employment. Children who love dinosaurs or the planets may grow up to become paleontologists or astrophysicists.
And that’s okay.
Even if a particular special interest doesn’t lead to a career, it’s still important to your child. Not everyone who loves Disney movies and memorabilia ends up working for The Walt Disney Company Did you grow up to become who you wanted to be when you were a child? If we all did, the world would be populated with cowboy-astronauts and firefighter-candy store owners and ballerina-heart surgeons. (That was me.) Instead, we change our minds many times between childhood interests and applying for our first real job as an adult.
Let’s allow our kids the right to follow their interests now, even if the adults around them don’t see value in them. Let them pursue their own unique brand of happiness, even if we don’t understand it. We can’t see what they see when they let sand trickle through their fingers, examining it as it falls. It could become a problem if a child finds sifting sand to be so fascinating that they never want to leave the sand box. Knowing that they will have a chance to come back to it later, through the use of a visual schedule, can make it easier to set aside the interest temporarily to attend to other things, like eating, doing homework, brushing teeth and going to bed.
If an interest becomes overwhelming and gets in the way, such as wanting to bring pocketsful of sand home from the park, we can offer other ways to meet the same need. Try as giving them a plastic tub of rice to sift and drop back into the tub, or a colorful sand “hourglass” or “lava lamp” toy that provides the same visual stimulation. And remember, your child’s interests and repetitive activities are likely to change over time. You can expect that your child will one day stop sifting sand and move on to another activity, or that a fascination with vacuum cleaners may give way to an interest in monster trucks.
There will always be room in our lives for hobbies and interests that are not related to our jobs. I enjoy knitting, but I will never make a living at it. If a person has a passion for art, or music, or dance, or building with Lego bricks, they can continue to pursue their passion whether or not they are “good enough” to make a living in the field. The world is full of happy adults who have a day job, and after work they play in a garage band, or take dance classes, or sing in a choir, or pursue any number of interests. Trying to completely eradicate or prohibit an interest (as long as it is not illegal or immoral) is unkind and unnecessary.
On the other hand, honoring a child’s interest does not mean accepting unacceptable behavior. A child who loves shiny things cannot be allowed to grab at someone’s earring to examine how it reflects the light. One child’s preferences cannot take over or derail family plans, or always take precedence over their siblings. That is a recipe for family disharmony. Everyone must learn that there is a time and place for interests, and that being rude or pushy, or hijacking every conversation, will not be tolerated.
Ambitious About Autism in the United Kingdom has a blog post titled “Obsessions and Special Interests,” which discusses the difference between an obsession and a special interest, and tips for managing special interests. These tips include:
- Keep Things Calm (Stress can intensify repetitive special interests or activities.)
- Set Limits (How many times may he bring up vacuum cleaners while visiting Grandma?)
- Teach Social Limits Early (You can’t just go up and touch someone, even if they have a velociraptor on their T-shirt.)
- Expand the Range (An interest in Pokémon may lead to interests in other Japanese animé, manga, and then to the art, history and culture of Japan, or learning the language.)
Read the entire article here.
There is much we can learn firsthand from adults on the spectrum. In the blog, Musings of an Aspie: One Woman’s Thoughts About Life on the Spectrum you will find a post called “What’s so Special About Special Interests?” It is worth reading this autistic writer’s perspectives on specialized interests here.
Author Jeannie Davide Rivera, who blogs as Aspiewriter, wrote a post called “Focusing on Special Interests: Asperger’s Syndrome and Special Interests.” Any parent who wonders what special interests might be like for their child will want to check out this insider story here.
Whether you call it an intense focus, a specialized interest, or a hobby, January is a great month to learn more about what your child loves to do, what holds their attention, what gives them joy. Use your neurotypical superpower to put yourself in their shoes and see the world through their eyes.
Because your child and their interests are worth it.