A few years ago I was leading a parent of teen support group when a mother expressed her irritation with her son’s special interest, the Titanic. “The Titanic,” one father shot back, “I’d love to hear about that, I’m stuck with Pokemon.” At AANE we frequently hear parents’ complaints about special interests. We understand, it can be hard to live with someone else’s special interest. Some parents easily embrace their child’s interests, some find this a lot harder, but we have found that having more information about the purpose of special interests can make living with them easier.
Approaches to special interests vary—some advocate for extinguishing them or using them mainly as a reward. In recent years, special interests have been highlighted a lot in the autism world. Temple Grandin was one of the first people to advocate the encouragement of special interests as potential paths to careers. Dr. Grandin’s own career is steeped in her special interest in animals. I fear that this focus may fail to take into account the importance of special interests in the lives’ of people with autism spectrum diagnoses. Here are a few things to consider…
- Anything can be a special interest. Most of the time a parent says that his offspring doesn’t have a special interest, it turns that the special interest is simply something the parent doesn’t consider a worthy use of time. Hating video games seems to be an obsession among parents of teens—whether they are on the spectrum or not, but I suspect they aren’t going anywhere and we will have to learn to live with them.
- Special interests do more than build employment skills. Perhaps, the best example of this is in Ron Suskind’s recent memoir in which he describes how his son Owen’s special interest in Disney animation lead to his greater self-understanding and connection with other people.
- Your kid is not the only one who likes it. In the age of the internet, if we’ve learned anything it is that there are people out there who share almost any interest, and that those people can be of any age, any gender and any walk of life. A few years ago I might not have believed that there were a number of adult men who adore My Little Pony.
- Passions make people interesting. It may be that I have spent a lot of time around people who have special interests, but I find people who are excited about something energizing. I think of the children’s librarians at our local library who have read every middle grade book ever written and can give you plot summaries and fantastic recommendations. Or a friend of mine who is a museum curator who did an exhibit on parking garages and became utterly fascinated with them. That kind of passionate curiosity is a kind of engagement with the world. We would be poorer without it.
- Special interests are an important part of anxiety management . Adults and children report that when they are engaged with their special interest, they feel calmer than at any other time. That is a gift. Why would we want to take that away from our kids?