How To Share In A Special Interest

Happy boy playing with toy dinosaurs

A lot of autistic people have very intense interests in a specific topic or object that makes them feel good, brings calm to the chaos and comfort to the scary. These interests can be repetitive and all-consuming, and for this reason some teachers and parents find them difficult to cope with.

The truth is that obsessions are only hard to handle if you’re not interested in them.

I love Lego, so I’m happy to spend all day building with the kids or finding Lego-related stuff to read and watch. I enjoy our long discussions about Star Wars and it’s fun to cuddle up with their insanely huge collection of stuffed animals.

But it bores me to talk about movie ratings so I find myself less supportive of their intense interest in that. And that’s not fair to them at all, but it’s reality – we only have a finite amount of patience for things that don’t interest us.

So while it’s understandable that you might find some of your kid’s interests annoying or hard to handle, that’s your problem to figure out and not theirs. It’s not up to them to stop involving you in something they enjoy so much, it’s your job to find some way to cope with the fact that you don’t love it too. And that doesn’t mean stopping, ignoring or swapping it for something else that you like better.

So what can you do?

Understand the interest

There are lots of reasons why autistic children tend to develop intense interests easily:

  • Perseveration – they get stuck on things
  • Focusing on details – which keeps their interests specific and narrow
  • Executive function issues – which makes multi-tasking tough
  • Anxiety about change – it feels comfortable to stick with the same thing
  • Need for order and routine – many interests involve categories and lists

In short, their brains are hard-wired to latch on to the things they enjoy and find solace in them. Understanding where the intense interest is coming from will help you accept it as just another part of who your child is.

Put rules around it

Give them some boundaries for indulging in their interests, so they can understand when it might cause problems and how to do it in a healthy and positive way. It’s useful to know that other people find it boring to listen to the same topic for an hour for example, or that sleep and hygiene are as important as getting to the next level of their video game.

Teaching kids how to engage in their interests in a healthy way is a positive and supportive way to help them enjoy the things they love.

Learn from it

Let your kids teach you about the things that they like, instead of just telling you about it. The depth of their knowledge is something to be proud of, and it’ll make you an expert too. You might not be interested in roller coaster statistics, but if you like science you could ask them to explain what makes it go so fast or how they slow it down when it gets to the top.

Expand and build on the interest

If you find a way to join in, you can gradually introduce new things and broaden their range of interests. If your child is really obsessed with dinosaurs for example, you might be able to broaden that interest by reading about the plants and insects that dinosaurs used to eat, the biomes they lived in, or their anatomy.

An intense interest is not just useless fact gathering or wasted time, think of it as an apprenticeship in your child’s chosen area of interest. They’re becoming experts, so maybe there’s a way to turn that into a job or potential career.

Make them feel useful

Give your kids a chance to feel valued and useful by using their special interest to contribute around the house. If they love to count things, you can let them help you bag up the loose change to take to the bank. If they enjoy running water, ask them to help wash the car or do the dishes. Maps? Give them the challenge of finding you a quicker route to work. Stones? Involve them in making a rock garden in your yard.

Find others who enjoy it too

Special interests can become overwhelming if you’re the only one that your kids can share it with. Find them another outlet – an online friend who shares the mutual interest that they can email or chat with, an association or fan club they can join, or maybe even a volunteering opportunity where they can spend time talking about their interests.

Redirect their attention

Talking and thinking about the interest is part of what makes it so comforting and enjoyable, but if it’s hard on your ears then give them somewhere else to put those thoughts. Help them start a blog, record a podcast or write in a journal. Find them books to read or websites to browse. You might even be able to find some related games and apps that they can play.

Enjoy it!

Your kids are doing something that they love, plus they feel happy and safe. What a wonderful thing.

Last updated 22 July, 2017 by Bec Oakley

Bec Oakley is an autistic writer and proud parent, with an intense passion for 80s text adventures, Twizzlers and making the world a better place for autistic people and their families.