Having a special interest in something is a major part of the repetitive behavior that comes with autism. In fact, researcher Tony Attwood (2003) found that special interests seem “to be a dominant characteristic, occurring in over 90% of children and adults with Asperger’s syndrome.” Your child, client, or student with autism may have an intense interest in one particular subject. While hearing someone you love go on and on about his or her favorite subject may get tiring, special interests are important. A 2007 study done by Winter-Messiers (2007) reflected that special interests should be treated seriously because they may be beneficial in building up skills that would be hard to obtain otherwise.
Leveraging Special Interests: What is a special interest?
Special interest areas (SIA) are different than other interests. My SIA is not just a hobby or activity, but a big part of my life. Cartoons (specifically Steven Universe, Harvey Beaks and Jane and the Dragon) serve as a comparative reference point to the interactions I make with the world. It’s one of the only things that seems familiar and natural to me. My other interests don’t have the same impact on my life: watching Firefly or playing clarinet are just things I like to do occasionally. While those activities are enjoyable I can stop thinking about them when I’m done.
Another thing that is important to understand is that SIAs vary greatly. Some of my friends have interests in trains, Thomas the Tank Engine, David Bowie, puzzles, European history, music, lining things up, bubbles, Eisenhower, yu-gi-oh cards, scientists, science fiction, cartoons, and organizing. (Those last two are mine!) While a great many autistic people show interest in mechanics or trains, SIAs run across a huge spectrum. It is also good to keep in mind that people with intense interests express their interests differently. For example, two people could both have an interest in horses, but express that interest in different ways. Some autistic people are really good at logical thinking and rote memorization (listing off horse facts) others excel at visual thinking and empathy (caring for horses.)
An episode of Arthur, “When Carl Met George,” actually mentions this. It explained special interests beautifully: “Maybe there's one thing in particular that captures your interest and you study just that.” This is said when “The Brain” is explaining Asperger’s syndrome to George. He uses an illustration of a person who lands on an alien planet without a guidebook. Everything is strange to this person until they find one thing in the world that is interesting or familiar to them.
Social, Communication, and Behavior Improvement
A couple of research studies have been done on SIAs and their impact on autistic people. A study done by Winter-Messiers (2007) showed that when autistic children talked about their special interests, their behavior, communication and social and emotional skills improved.
The study showed that SIAs help improve emotional health and knowledge. The children in the study felt negatively towards themselves, but when participants were engaged or talking about their SIA they were confident and expressive. On a related note, while some SIAs might have seemed isolating in the past, that is not the case anymore. Worldwide communication has increased and autistic adults can find communities online that also share similar interests. It makes me feel happy when I see that a lot of people that also like the same things I like!
“Participants shared that they felt positive emotions, including enthusiasm, pride, and happiness, when actively engaged in their SIA” (Winter-Messiers, 2007). Identifying emotions when you are autistic can be really hard, even just to name emotions that go further than ‘good or ‘bad.’ Personally, this resonates with me because identifying emotions is one area in which my SIA has helped me. For example, one character in Steven Universe, Amythest, was born in really bad circumstances. She is ashamed of where she came from. Another character, Pearl (who is one of the most relatable characters) has a hard time comforting her friend. She doesn’t know what to say, and is upset when Amythest breaks the rules, even if it doesn’t really matter. Both Amythest’s shame and Pearls inflexibility and confusion are extremely relatable, and help me identify some of my own emotions.
SIAs are also used in emotional regulation. Some participants mentioned thinking about horses or playing their saxaphone to calm down (Winter-Messiers, 2007). I know that I personally use my SIA to self-regulate. I like to make picture cards of characters and places from my cartoons and arrange them in different patterns.
SIAs have been shown to be a motivating factor in communication for autistic individuals. In the study, they noticed that the participants changed their speech patterns when talking about their special interest. Participants who used a monotone voice changed their voice to reflect enthusiasm. Researchers noted that, “sophistication of their vocabulary, word order, and syntax improved considerably. Responses also increased in complexity” (Winter-Messiers, 2007). Eye contact and gestures also increased and the need to self-stimulate decreased. I can definitely testify to this. Differences in cognitive abilities can make it feels as if you are always translating your thoughts into another language. But, if I’m explaining something that is already in my language, talking about it feels more natural.
SIAs also act as a fine motor skills incentive. With autism, it is hard to move your body in a graceful way. It can get pretty frustrating trying to move in a certain way and constantly messing up. However, being in uncomfortable and frustrating situations does not seem so rough when you are doing it for your SIA. Motor skills can be developed by playing a favorite computer game or by making fan art for a favorite cartoon. Sensory input is also less of a challenge when individuals are engaged in their SIA (Winter-Messiers, 2007). Someone that likes animals may be able to tolerate strong smells when engaged with their SIA. Personally, I have a hard time with overwhelming noises, but I can listen to songs from the soundtrack of my favorite cartoons at full volume.
Implementing Special Interests in the Classroom
The Texas Statewide Leadership for Autism provides educators three steps to implement SIAs in the classroom:
The National Autistic Society gave a good example of how SIAs can be used in the classroom. One teacher used an educational version of the popular game Minecraft to interest her students in math. According to the teacher, it was a success!
Here are a few examples of how special interests could be used for learning:
- An interest in toy cars or trains could be used for counting.
- An interest in cartoons could be used to teach empathy or social skills by looking at the way the characters treat each other
- An interest in pokemon could be used to compare the similarities and differences between things.
Honestly, you know your child, student or client well. Develop a plan that will utilize their SIA in learning new skills that works best for them!
Extra: My Special Interest
I have a special interest in organizing and cartoons. Organizing things is a passion that I’ve had for a very long time. When I was young I demonstrated this interest by lining things up (usually “Sesame Street” dolls) in a particular order. During indoor recess, or during the times in which I helped my mom set up her classroom, I would take bins of beans, beads, or counting blocks and sort them by type and color. Organizing is easy for me because I’m good at picking out differences and similarities and I can visualize an area in my mind and move things around like you would with a computer and a mouse.
My other special interest, cartoons, is probably the one people notice most about me. I love to talk about cartoons- especially Steven Universe, Harvey Beaks, and Jane and the Dragon. I love the animation in all three, and I can tell that the creators also loved what they were making. I’ll list one thing I like most about each show:
- Steven Universe
The thing I like most about Steven Universe is the music. Rebecca Sugar is an amazing composer, and the lyrics and animation that accompany the songs are spectacular. Most character development is shown through the songs.
- Harvey Beaks
The thing I like most about Harvey Beaks is the show’s tone. It reminds me of what is what like to be a little kid. Everyone in the show is supportive and honest. Harvey, the main character, is very positive and straightforward-- he loves his parents and his friends and wants to impress them and do his best. The backgrounds on this show are beautiful and look almost as if they were done in watercolor or pastels on a canvas.
- Jane and the Dragon
The thing I like best about Jane and the Dragon are the characters and their relationships. The animation is a bit strange, but the character design fits each person’s personality. I like how the characters can forgive each other and I like to see how easily they can talk to one another. The show is aimed at older elementary student, but the subjects and messages in the show are mature.
Support your child's special interest:
Our NEW Language Builder Blocks provide children with an open-ended way to express special interests through building, creating, organizing, or lining blocks up in rows. Our free app that comes with the blocks lets children collect images of their special creations or learn by choosing and recreating images that appear on the app.
Resources used to prepare this article:
Winter-Messiers, Mary Ann. “From Tarantulas to Toilet Brushes: Understanding the Special Interest Areas of Children and Youth with Aspergers Syndrome. Remedial and Special Education, 28 May/June 2017.
*Our author indicated that she preferred “autistic person” over “person with autism.” Stages Learning typically uses the “person first” language that has been recommended by disability advocates, but there is now discussion about a preference for “autistic person.” For background on this please see: http://autisticadvocacy.org/home/about-asan/identity-first-language/. We support the preferences of our authors whenever possible.
Please share with us below your child's special interest. Perhaps we can use it when we design our next new learning tool!