Family Learning | April 1, 2020

How to Support Children With Autism Who Have Special Interests

By Sylvia Diehl, Ph.D., CCC-SLP

George is 4 ½ years old and is passionate about maps. One day, he went with his Mom to see his father at work. George’s father was excited to show George his office and rode down on the elevator to greet his wife and son. When the elevator opened, George hardly noticed his Dad and went straight to the emergency exit map posted on the elevator.

Strong special interests and passions are a part of autistic disorder. These special interest areas are different than hobbies because of the strong intensity of the child’s focus and preoccupation. As in the case of George, who has a strong interest in maps, they can sometimes be frustrating for family members.

Dr. Temple Grandin, a prominent professor, author and autism spokesperson, suggests looking at these interests as a positive force. She believes in emphasizing “what a child can do instead of what they can’t do.” Dr. Grandin, who has autism, points out that special interests can be storehouses of attention, motivation and knowledge. Additionally, Thøger Kari Hass, in an article on The Mighty website, shares that his special interests help him deal with social situations and help him regain security and balance when his days are chaotic.

These two adults with autism show how special interests can be used in a beneficial manner. In fact, viewing special interests in a positive light can become part of a parent’s superpower. 

In this Parenting Minutes video, watch how Liz and Dave support their children with autism by leaning into their interests: 

Use special interests in family activities.
Using special interests as part of family activities helps motivate children to be active in  their family group. The child looks forward to being with family, having fun, and helping to create a sense of belonging and accomplishment. In the family scenario mentioned above, the next time Mom and George go to visit Dad at his office, Mom can show George a hand-drawn “treasure map” to Dad’s office with Dad as the treasure! 

Use special interests to broaden learning.
A great way to introduce new learning is to investigate things that are related to a child’s  interests. Broadening their knowledge by using their special interests as the pivotal focus builds in motivation and attention. Special interests tend to change over time as the child gets older, and other related interests can oftentimes grow from those original interests. For example, George loves the Map Adventure on KIDS Clubhouse Adventure in which the characters make a map and go on a pirate adventure. After watching this episode, George became interested in learning about oceans, boats, and pirates. Building off of George’s new interest, George’s family worked together to build a  pirate boat with laundry baskets and played “pirates finding treasure.” Ahoy Matey! 

Use special interests to calm.
Special interests can help children calm down after a day of big emotions. For some children, these interests can create structure, daily order, and help to provide comfort. After a confusing day at preschool because of a substitute teacher, George’s mom gets out his favorite atlas and says, “George, I can see you feel upset. Why don’t you look at the maps for 15 minutes? This will help calm your mind so we can talk about your day.” She then sets the timer for 15 minutes and writes a schedule: 1. Read Atlas and make our mind calm. 2. Talk about our school day. 

Use Power Cards to teach new things or address challenges.
We can all learn a lot from our heroes! Power Cards use the child’s special interest or hero to help to teach or generalize skills. For younger children, Power Cards start with a short story that features the child’s hero or special interest and outlines a challenging situation. The story suggests a strategy and includes an illustration. The strategy is then made into a Power Card that the child can use as a reminder next time they are faced with a similar situation. Here is a brief example of using Power Cards with George, with one of his favorite characters, Xavier Riddle:     

Xavier Riddle wants me to remember:
1. My family is a group.
2. It keeps us safe to stay with my group.

Xavier Riddle likes to explore with his sister, Yidina, and friend, Brad. They are a group of explorers! Groups stay together so they won’t get lost or leave someone behind. Xavier says that this is a very important rule.  Yidina, Brad, and Xavier are a group just like George, Mom, Dad, and Timmy are a family group. Xavier knows that when you are with a group, it is very important to stay together. It keeps him safe. Xavier thinks that George should stay close to his family group when they go exploring outside the house.

Use special interests as a reinforcer.
Let’s face it. There are times when children must do things that they are not interested in doing. Special interests can be used as the “sugar” to help the medicine go down. George’s parents will sometimes use stickers or allow him to look at a special map if he remembers to brush his teeth all by himself. While a special verbal thanks, a hug, and smile from them works many times, George’s parents save the special reinforcers to help him learn important lessons or get through difficult times.

Leaning into your child’s special interests can truly be a parent superpower! It will also help broaden your child’s horizons in a way that promotes attention and motivation. Those special interests might also just be the keys to your child’s future!

Sylvia Diehl, Ph.D. is the founder of Knowledge Counts Online: An Online School for Parents of Children with Autism. She taught at the University of South Florida in the areas of autism, pediatric language, and augmentative and alternative communication. She has supported children with autism, parents, and educators for over 30 years and is the author of many articles and book chapters.