I want to write more on the topic of special interests because it keeps coming up in autism literature AND seems to present itself, in my own research as a link that connects people, activities and places.
Special interests are represented differently to different people. On face value, these appear to take the form of hobbies. In medical/psychological literature, there is an emphasis on how the children prevaricate, or obsess, over things, especially odd things. Frequently, the children are reported as doing little more than clutching an object, spinning it or lining objects up in some orderly fashion. Most of these studies are conducted through observing children who have little or no verbal abilities, or are very young and may not understand questions asked of them.
Parents of autistic children tend to see these as extreme hobbies, where their children want to do these all the time, to the absence of everything else (including eating, sleeping and other necessary functions). While all parents of young children (of all abilities) tend to see this happen, parents of autistic children observe that many of these special interests may involve strange things, such as interests in washing machines, trash trucks, thunderstorms, etc. Indeed, many of these special interests may come from things that provoke fear in the children; it is almost as if they try to work out the fear by making it their friend. Where the medical professionals tend to see the child in timed sessions in empty rooms, parents are the ones who spend large amounts of time with the children. Even if they are perplexed regarding their children’s interests, parents tend to understand patterns of behavior and what circumstances trigger problems such as melt-downs. As their child gets older, parents frequently rely on their child’s special interest(s) as a way to introduce the child to new places and activities.
Temple Grandin, an Animal Science professor at Colorado State University who also writes about being an autistic person, discusses the importance of recognizing and using special interests to involve autistics in the real world, including education, jobs and life. In her book (co-authored with Kate Duffy), Developing Talents: Careers for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome and High-functioning Autism – Updated, Expanded Edition, the role of special interests is remarkably important. Many young adults have maintained their special interest(s) throughout childhood and have not only learned a great deal about this topic (they may, in fact, be experts on the subject), but also derive a great deal of enjoyment and comfort from it.
I had to get this out on paper for those of you who might not understand the importance of special interests. Tomorrow, I’d like to discuss more about how this plays an important role in the design of places.