How can I support my autistic child's special interests?

Although Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper is not pathologized by the show’s producers as having autism, many viewers have come to recognize some of the traits often associated with autism spectrum disorder, including his very rule-based tendencies and strict, rigid thinking – and his deep devotion to his special interests (in Sheldon’s case, it’s trains).

It’s one of the most common traits of individuals with autism spectrum disorder – the development of a special interest, whether it’s trains, dinosaurs, musical instruments, or animals. Really, it can be anything that captivates the attention and interest of the person, and becomes something of comfort.

In some cases, it can become so special that it is a sure-fire way to reduce stress for the individual, or even become part of their future. While there isn’t a single reason that autistic individuals seem far more intensely committed to their interests than neurotypical people typically are, we know that whatever the special interest, it’s of extreme value, and cannot be ignored, brushed away, or minimized.

Special interests have numerous benefits for a person with autism: not only can they reduce the stress and anxiety the child might feel, friendships are made more possible when the interest is shared with other people. Parents, caregivers and teachers can use the special interest to their benefit when trying to come up with rewards for good behavior, and the special interest can be introduced and applied to an academic or social setting.

So how do we support our own autistic child’s special interests?

First, we can give them ample time to enjoy their special interest; there is no need to limit their time because we’re concerned it may become an obsession. In fact, we’re told that it’s better to indulge the child’s interests, because of all the reasons listed above. (The only time, however, that we should limit or try to eliminate an interest altogether is if a special interest is harmful to the child or others.)

Cassie and her husband, Dominic, discovered their child Dawson’s interest in wolves when he was four. “We brought him to the zoo and he was completely mesmerized,” Cassie says. “Over the years, he’s absorbed so much about wolves – he watches documentaries, reads books, watches YouTube videos.

“When he turned eight, we adopted a husky puppy, and the routine and responsibility of taking care of his own little ‘wolf’ has been lifechanging,” she continues. “It’s such a joy for him, and as a family, we’ve all learned a lot!”

Second, incorporating their interest into family activities is an opportunity to bring the family together. Like Cassie and her family discovered, there’s something special about sharing the child’s special interest.

Another tip to support your autistic child’s special interest is to show interest in what they’re doing (no matter how uninteresting it may be to you at first). Perhaps you want nothing to do with dinosaurs. Or trumpets. Or comic books. But your child loves this thing, and you love your child. Ask him or her what it is they find so interesting, and maybe you’ll discover something about this interest you love too. Mini tip: if it becomes overwhelming to you to talk so much about this interest, carve out time – say, 30 minutes a day – when your child can talk about their interest and you’ll listen without reservation or disinterest for that full 30 minutes.

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