Autism often brings special interests— everything from trains, laundry sorting, Elmo videos (as in the case of my son, Liam's, first love), sifting woodchips (his new most favorite thing), horses...the lists go on and on. Every child with autism I've ever met has one or more things he or she wants to do/watch/play over and over again. At first glance, these special interests can seem strange and even, perhaps, inappropriate. I mean, should my 7-year-old still be watching Sesame Street videos or spending hours moving mulch around the park? Conventional wisdom might say no, but I say yes.
And I'm not alone in this. I'm happy to report that the conversation about what to do with special interests is changing. More and more parents are harnessing special interests to help their children with autism learn, grow, and connect to the world around them. Last year, Ron Suskind published a lovely essay (and book) that discusses how he reached his son through Disney characters, movies, and scripts. Suskind and his family embraced the child's passion for Disney, and they found tremendous gains by doing so. Likewise, a few days ago, Rasha Madkour, another parent to a child with autism, shared her story of using the PBS show Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood to help her son navigate social and emotional situations.
In each of these cases, the parents leaned into—rather than trying to forbid or squash—their child's special interest, and that helped the child communicate, interact, and connect. I try to do the same thing with Liam, although, I admit it's struggle to just let him sift woodchips at the park. It seems so unproductive to me. It's so messy. And other kids looks at him as he makes noises and moves earth.
But here's the thing: it's not about me. It's not about what other kids think. It's about what Liam likes and how he has fun. He's not hurting anyone. He's happy. He grins. He stims. He dances as he indulges in his special interest.
On her Youtube series, "Ask an Autistic," Amythest Schaber talks all about special interests in this helpful video. She's got a lot of great things to say, but two quotes always run through my head as I watch Liam play.
Schaber says: "My mom was always very supportive of my special interests, and I love her for that!"
And: "When it comes to special interests, they are not harmful....researchers tend to pathologize special interests...but the reason it's so important to allow and encourage a special interest...is because it's also a kind of coping mechanism...indulging in a special interests can be a release, can be an escape, can rejuvenate...."
And so, I try to keep that in mind as I watch Liam pick up and dump woodchips over and over and over again. Unlike other parents, whose kids have more sophisticated special interests, Liam and I don't do scripts from Disney or Daniel Tiger to make sense of complex social and emotional situations, but we do dig in the dirt together. We can sift and sort and laugh and talk, and for both of us, I think that's enough. At least until his special interests change, and I find news ways to support him and connect with him through what he enjoys.
Image provided by Jamie Pacton