Autism Awareness Month, Day 14: Special Interests


The best cure for an obsession? Get another one. ~Mason Cooley

The 1961 Ferrari GT California. Less than a hundred were made. My father spent three years restoring this car. It is his love, it is his passion. ~Cameron Frye, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”

Its his fault he didnt lock the garage

If yesterday’s post were labored and tedious, today’s is a piece of cake by comparison. I could literally write a book (and in fact, am working on a manuscript) about Aspies and their wonderful, often esoteric, special interests. Those who are unfamiliar with AS need only know that special interests are what water is to fish, or what crunchy dry dog food is to hungry Labradors. Lifeblood, manna, aqua vitae. Not every Aspie needs a special interest to survive, but I’ve never met an Aspie who did not have at least one deep special interest or hobby. I’m no exception.

I’m not entirely sure why Aspies have a proclivity towards…what? Obsessions? Fanatical devotions? I prefer to think of special interests as mastery of a subject in an era where people are expected to be familiar in passing with any number of topics. There is no evolutionary explanation, although, with people naturally choosing like-minded mates, it would seem that Aspie genes are likely to produce more Aspie genes. I have this picture in my mind of some Cro-Magnons during the Ice Age…most of them out fighting or chasing mammoths, while one or two sit quietly to the side and try to figure out which rocks are the sharpest or which plants taste the best. Think for a moment about whether mankind would have discovered the properties of electricity, or the internal combustion engine, or manned spaceflight without this intrinsic curiousity. I’m not suggesting that every scientist or inventor in history is or was an Aspie, but there’s a certain obsessive, focused interest that goes into the creation of great theories or discoveries.

Albert Einstein, rumored Aspie

Exasperated parents may be wondering what their son’s dinosaur obsession or their daughter’s fixation with naming her Breyer horses may have to do with a future as a neurobiologist or astrophysicist. I’m not sure either; I am neither psychologist nor soothsayer. I do know that some Aspies may become titans in their field while others may be unable to hold any sort of job. This is the same thing that happens to NTs. What I do know is that special interests should not be seen as impediments, but rather stepping stones to growth.

Many Aspie kids will tell you they find school boring or pointless. I know I did, but had I encountered a teacher who made learning relevant and fun, I might have thought differently. One of my favorite tips to teaching Aspies, particularly the gifted ones, is to incorporate special interests into the curriculum. If you run into a boy who hates reading, try finding stories about dinosaurs, Star Wars, or whatever character he finds fascinating. For a girl who’s reluctant to tackle a science project, ask her if she wants to learn about weather or the life cycle of a frog. The main point is: Aspies hate conformity and the feeling of “being like everyone else,” so try to think outside the box along with them. This is difficult in typical public schools, but with the advent of IEPs in schools, it can be done. Homeschooling and magnet schools are also a possible solution.

My name is H.M. and I survived childhood

But where am I going with this? Today’s post is supposed to be fun, not a dissertation on evolutionary psychology or educational theory. Let me tell you a bit about special interests.

I think of them a lot like snowflakes. No two are alike. They can be related (ie, a love of superheroes may lead to a new interest in comic book collecting) or not (a child who enjoys train schedules may leap to herpetology.) I’ve had so many in my life; I think of them as many NTs think of their ex-boyfriends or girlfriends. Some are still with me and others have been consigned to the dustbin of my memories. I’ve heard it said that male Aspies’ special interests are often more esoteric or “strange” than their female counterparts: counting traffic cones, for example, or naming the parts of prehistoric mammals. I’ve also known women Aspies who are as eccentric as the day is long. There’s no litmus test as to what is an “acceptable” special interest or not, so long as the interest is not illegal, dangerous or somehow illicit.

A brief sampler of my special interests over the years for my readers’ amusement. Again, some of these may seem positively mainstream, while others are murkily esoteric:

* Baseball cards, especially organizing and memorizing them

* Different kinds of clouds

* The Smurfs (I was an 80s kid)

* Greek mythology

* Setting a Guinness world record (in what, I never decided)

* The Triple Crown of horse racing (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes)

* Xena: Warrior Princess, including cosplaying Xena

* Renaissance and medieval re-enactments

* Coins from around the world

* Flying, particularly my fascination with airports


Is this "Planespotting?"

In short, it’s not always easy to tell what a “normal” special interest might be or when it borders on the obsessive. Parents will tell you that their child wants to talk about his or her special interest all day long and will do so without healthy boundaries. Children, whether AS or NT, need to learn that there is a time and place to talk about everything, including special interests. They must also be taught that certain subjects may be appropriate sometimes but not others (for example, a child may be fascinated by the scientific study of human anatomy, but such discussions are frowned upon as a topic of conversation.) This is ultimately up to the parents, and can be quite a challenge.

I will offer the advice I can on the topic. I could use entirely bits of dialogue from TV or movies (long a special interest of mine), but I’ll refrain for now:

* Use your best instincts when it comes to special interests. Kids may go through phases, and it’s natural for both NT or AS kids to do that.

* Don’t withhold a child’s special interest as a form of punishment. For so many Aspies, special interests are a lifeline, a tether to the “real world.” Instead, use them as an incentive: if the child behaves well at a party or at a worship service, allow extra time for the special interest. Positive reinforcement always works better than negative reinforcement.

* Make one topic segue into another; use opportunities to learn. They say parents are a child’s first and best teacher. I agree. Nurture a child’s natural curiousity with appropriate books or films on their special interest. Any librarian will be happy to introduce your son or daughter to a world of reading.

* Let your child express him- or herself…within reason. As I mentioned earlier, there are societal expectations everyone must learn to follow, including Aspies. Help them to understand that there is a difference between private and public behavior.

* Find others who share your child’s special interest. Plenty of clubs exist now for just about any interest: science, chess, drama, and so forth. These are good opportunities to meet friends who are more understanding and adult mentors who can share knowledge.

* Relax and have fun. Remember that an Aspie’s sharing of a special interest with you is often a form of affection.

Even Ferraris can be Special Interests

As always, I’m glad you’re reading this post! Be sure to click “Like” if you enjoyed it, subscribe to P&Q if you haven’t already, and stay tuned. Tomorrow: AS and other diagnoses.

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on April 14, 2011.

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