HOW SPECIAL INTERESTS CAN HELP YOUR CHILD AND YOU NOW



I was attending a webinar on supporting children on IEPs at home during school closures. A well-respected BCBA was saying that she observed many children "regress" to their special interest that they have had in the past but have left behind. For example, children who used to be interested in Thomas the Engine are now again showing an interest in this topic. The BCBA attributed this to under-stimulation and lack of social skills instruction. It was a good thing that all the attendees were muted because I was about to exclaim, "Absolutely not! Under-stimulation is not the explanation here! And returning to an old special interest is not a bad thing!" In this blog, I would like to offer my perspective to parents and professionals who maybe are seeing similar behavior in their kids or clients/patients and are wondering if this is something to discourage. In my previous blog on special interests, which you can find here, I wrote about the newly emerging perspective that special interests play important and positive roles in the lives of individuals on the spectrum. They can be a coping or self-regulation strategy, a way to connect to others or earn status, a source of competence, control and self-confidence, or just a very enjoyable activity. All of us are currently dealing with tremendous uncertainty. It is anxiety-provoking even for those of us who do not normally experience anxiety. Children on the spectrum are very good at picking up on the emotional states of those around them. Many of them are hypersensitive to the emotional states of others. They can become anxious when others around them are anxious. And everyone is anxious these days. So you have a situation where a child on the spectrum is experiencing emotional distress due to abrupt and significant changes in their lives. Most of their familiar and safe routines are broken. In addition, children are picking up on and are affected by the distress of others. Furthermore, children on the spectrum, who have information processing differences, are required to process complex information about a pandemic and related safety measures. This information processing load creates even more distress. If you consider all of these stressors taken together, it is not surprising that those children resort to the coping strategy that is familiar and works for them. They engage with a special interest. We do not need to evaluate special interests based on our neurotypical perspective. Special interests have nothing to do with us or how we think. Special interests are a way to self-regulate and a good distraction. They are enjoyable and something to look forward to. They can help pass the time. I have read accounts of adults on the spectrum who describe re-engaging with their old special interest as a very pleasurable and happy experience. Sometimes, there is no time for all the special interests, or a new one comes along and becomes the most absorbing one. But the old special interests never seem to be fully left behind. They are waiting in reserves. And due to school closure, children who don't deal well with a lack of structure now have more unstructured time than ever. Where previously there might have not been time to engage in a less favorite special interest, now the time is available, and too much of it. As far as can see, a child's re-engagement with an old special interest is an all-around win. It's a gift that a child has such a positive experience to fall back upon in the time that is so trying. And the special interests can be very useful in home learning as well. If we leave our neurotypical values and judgments behind and just connect with a child around their special interest, great opportunities await. Let's count those engines! And if I take three away, how many are left? Can we divide them into three equal groups? Let's tape a letter of the alphabet to each one and line them up in alphabetical order! Let's spell their names! Let me write their names and you read! Let's write a story about them! Let's tell grandma about the engines! Let's build a rail track for them (that's ideation, motor planning, and sequencing!). Let's name their colors! You get the idea. You can connect with your child through their special interest and you can also use it for teaching. The bottom line is, please do not discourage your child's special interest. There are reasons that your child feels so passionately about their special interest. Those reasons need to be understood and respected. For autistic adults, spending time with a special interest is also an important coping strategy and a way to get lost in an enjoyable activity away from the overwhelming and disturbing news. Now that so many people are spending most of the time confined to their homes, having a passion is a wonderful gift, a way to manage one's mental health and maintain a sense of normalcy. As I wrote in my previous blog post on the topic, it is important to maintain a balance between engaging in a special interest and using other adaptive and coping skills, such as exercise and social connection, to experience the best quality of life.