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Special Interests in Autism

Emily Singer

SPARK asked participants to share some of their children’s or their own special interests on Facebook. The response was overwhelming and inspired this article. Some common answers were trains, maps, animals, video games, and comic books. Sprinkled within the research article below are a few of the unique answers that we received.

In 2005, Kristie Patten Koenig, now chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy at New York University, won a grant to train providers who work with children with autism. She decided to begin her program by interviewing 60 adults with autism — some who could speak and some who typed to communicate.

Many of the people she interviewed described a special interest, such as trains or animals, that they loved to engage in but were often discouraged from pursuing during school. “It was clear to me that we were missing a wealth of information about the strengths of these individuals and what drove them,” Koenig says. “They were beaten down by professionals trying to fix them. That was a turning point for me as a researcher and clinician.” The experience inspired Koenig to shift the focus of her career. Rather than trying to overcome deficits in people with autism, she now explores ways to build on preferred interests. “It's a real avenue for learning and growth, for showing their competence,” says Koenig. “It’s about bringing special interests into the forefront and using them as motivation in learning at school or at home.”

Special interests are one of the most common characteristics of people with autism. Historically, some interventions for autism have tried to limit them or use them largely as a reward for good behavior. But many people with autism consider these interests to be an important strength and a way to relieve stress. Some even expand on them to create a successful career. “The autistic self-advocacy community says, ‘Don't diminish this behavior, it's a positive aspect of our lives,” Koenig says. “I think the professional community is slowly catching up.”

"Roller coasters — he knows all of the names and where every one of them are in the world! But, he's terrified of riding them. He's also fascinated by Vegas. He knows every hotel in Vegas."

A growing number of therapists and educators are recognizing the potential benefits that special interests can bring. Koenig’s work and that of others has shown that incorporating special interests into therapies and daily life can enhance social skills and other functions, as well as reduce anxiety. For example, engaging in special interests can improve attention and social interactions in people with autism.

Koenig recalls consulting at a group home for people with autism where she met a young woman who loved country music. When the woman successfully did her chores, she was rewarded by getting to listen to her favorite country station on the radio. Unfortunately, she didn’t earn that privilege very often. “She had a lot of behaviors that interfered with her getting the reward,” Koenig says.

Koenig suggested instead building country music into the young woman’s day — such as listening to the radio while she did her chores. If she followed the schedule, she could earn a more significant reward, such as going to a country music concert. Koenig says that using a special interest as a reward can be helpful, but it shouldn't be the only way that people have access to their special interests. “You have to let people do what they’re good at rather than just rewarding them with it,” she says.

Another child Koenig met loved different accents — he would listen to sports announcer Howard Cosell talk about football, or Irish priests on the Catholic radio channel. “When I found that out, I said, How can I use this?” she says. Koenig and the boy’s family settled on a recording in a thick Scottish brogue that prompted him through his morning routine. “It takes some creativity and collaboration,” Koenig says.

BUILDING INTERESTS INTO EDUCATION

Stephen Shore, an autism self-advocate and professor of special education at Adelphi University in New York, says his special interests first emerged at age 4, when he began taking apart and reassembling watches. “My parents noticed this interest and they promoted it by providing other devices to take apart,” Shore says. As he grew older, he began taking apart and repairing bicycles, eventually translating that interest into work as a bicycle mechanic.

Shore advocates incorporating special interests into education for people with autism and, when possible, in shaping careers. For example, he says, under the old model of autism education, a teacher or therapist might reward someone who loves airplanes with 15 minutes of a flight simulator game for doing a set of math problems. Shore suggests instead incorporating planes into the math problems themselves.

“Currently, his obsession is speakers. He has wired his room for surround sound with an old receiver, a DVD player and speakers bought at Goodwill and an extra speaker wire found in dad's garage. He's 11 and could probably rewire a house.”

Shore also encourages families to think about how to expand on special interests for a future career. Someone interested in planes might become an engineer or a baggage handler. Even interests with a less obvious applications provide potential job opportunities, he says. “I know a guy who likes to stim on bright shiny objects who became a successful coin dealer.” He recalls a boy he met in Japan who loved to stick his finger in the faucet and watch water spray at high pressure. “Maybe he could become the best power-washer in the country,” Shore says. “Most people might get bored by that job, but he’d do it with enthusiasm.”

Koenig and collaborators at NYU Steinhardt support a program through the New York City Department of Education called ASD Nest to implement these ideas. The program trains teachers to use special interests to help students learn and engage with others. “One of the core things we do in Nest is look for strengths and talents and figure out how to foster that,” Koenig says.

Some schools and organizations have started to use special interest clubs as a way to help students with autism socialize around a subject they particularly enjoy. This makes a lot of sense, Koenig says.“You and I socialize around preferred interests — you don't join a book club if you don't like to read. I think more and more social skills groups are doing that.”

Koenig notes that although this approach is catching on, more research is required. She is now working on a National Science Foundation project centered at three ASD Nest middle schools where students with autism and neurotypical students participate in an after-school engineering club. Researchers will explore whether students who participate in the club become more socially engaged and whether their interest in engineering grows. For families who would like to try to build on their child’s special interest, Koenig suggests finding opportunities to express that interest, be it formally or informally. A child interested in the subway, for example, could learn more about related history, such as who was president when the subway was first built. “There are lots of directions it can go; you’re only limited by imagination,” she says.

Some museums and community spaces have recognized that they hold a particular interest for people with autism and have built programs around this. The New York Transit Museum, for example, has a group called Subway Sleuths, which focuses on developing social skills. “If you’re a parent, think about what your child is interested in and look for resources related to that interest. Libraries and museums can help with that,” Koenig says.

“Halloween, more specifically pumpkins. My son is 4 and has been obsessed with pumpkins and all things spooky since he was 2. We have pumpkins all over the house, even some painted on rocks for our own little pumpkin patch year-round. I call him the Pumpkin King.”