Do you have a hobby or an interest in something? Perhaps you enjoy collecting handbags or shoes, perhaps you love icing cakes in your spare time or enjoy collecting antique books or rare stamps. Whatever your hobby, I bet there are quite a number of us that have a real passion for something. Well autistic people are the same in that they also have interests but unlike the non autistic person, their interests take on a particular intensity. As a result the interests pursued by an autistic person are often referred to as either a special interest or sometimes, perhaps negatively, as an obsession.
For my son, his special interest appeared early on in his life. As a toddler he was fascinated with wheels and would spend hours laying on the floor looking at his cars and lining them up. As he grew older his fascination with wheels extended to real life vehicles: fire engines, dustbin lorries, tractors and construction vehicles. Such was his interest that if any of these vehicles passed us by my son had to stop and watch, whether it was from the front window of our house or along the street.
His fascination with all things vehicular then extended to building sites and if we came across a construction site he would again have to stop and watch the builders at work. Then his interest extended to lego and for many years he was absorbed by lego kits that were based on a vehicle theme.
Vehicles dominated. He talked about vehicles, he looked for books on vehicles, he built vehicles and any chance to climb aboard a particular vehicle he was on it. More recently his love of vehicles has crossed over into his other interests, the military and the computer, and he can often be found absorbed by a game that involves military vehicles.
In contrast, my daughter’s special interests are what I describe as ‘softer’, less obscure, more socially acceptable in some ways and easily overlooked as a symptom of an autistic disorder. Looking back, her special interests did not attract the same level of curiosity as my son’s as her early interest was art which seemed to be an ordinary thing to do – painting, sticking, colouring in, playdough. What we didn’t notice was that her interest in art was to the exclusion of most other things that little girls do such as dressing up and make believe and role play with her dolls. For some reason we did not pick up on her lack of imaginative play and I have to wonder why we missed this sign? Was it because our house was so dominated by her elder brother’s autistic behaviours that autism was becoming our norm? Probably.
Nevertheless I did start to notice my daughter’s unusual pattern of play when she started to become unusually interested in sloths. It was sloth this, sloth that. Everything was sloths and we used to spend ages looking for books on sloths in the library, looking it up on the internet and we even went as far as looking for a toy sloth, without much success.
There then followed periods of great intensity on My Little Pony (we ended up with a lot of those pastel coloured ponies all over the house), then miniature toy horses, pets and zoo animals which she would often group together on our coffee table. And from there she has recently moved onto moshi monsters and club penguin; whether it be card collections, soft toys, computer games, colouring in – everything is moshi monsters or club penguin. I think the moshis are winning though.
For all of their differences however, my children both exhibit the same type of intense behaviour. They can become so absorbed with their interests that they can forget about time and the need to get washed and dressed. Even signs of needing the toilet can be missed. Not surprisingly I have to continually remind them about the importance of personal hygiene. It is also hard to peel them away from their interests and to communicate with them on other subjects. Life outside their interests for them is, to quote my daughter, “boring”. Indeed one of the challenges I face as a parent is to teach them when it is appropriate to talk about their special interests and when it isn’t. Its hardgoing and sometimes I feel as though their special interests, particularly my son’s, are taking over and defining a lot of what we can do.
Nevertheless their interests provide them with a way to relax and to feel happy. I have noticed that after school if they reengage with their special interest they start to unwind and for us it has prevented or eased many a meltdown. It gives them an opportunity to be who they are, free from the complex rules of social interaction and the need to conform. It is also a route through which I can communicate with them. Their interests have also shown to be a brilliant opportunity through which to embed learning. When my son was home tutored the tutor used his special interest at the time (lego) to teach him literacy. The results were quite impressive and my son was more engaged with learning that at any point before in his education.
But there is something more than learning; there is also self esteem. Their special interests give my children an opportunity to develop an expertise in something which can be valued by others and which can help them to develop confidence to talk about their subject to other people. This is something we should prize not just in my children but in everyone who has the ability to focus on something. Their stamina and dedication that they can naturally devote to a particular subject or object is something that our societies need. Learning about something to an incredible depth has the potential to reveal new knowledge that we can all benefit from. And for my children, it may just be a way into a vocation or a career.