Why Special Interests Matter

Why Special Interests Matter: An Autism Post

When it comes to Autism, I’ve worked over the years at both ends of the spectrum, from non-verbal infants to highly articulate teenagers, from Options programmes to ABA, in state run schools and independent ones.

I’ve also been fortunate enough to give birth to and raise the Bear.

Whether it’s teaching or parenting, my methods draw undoubtedly on my past experiences. I take bits of all of the schools and programmes I’ve worked on over the years to create ways of learning both for the Bear and for the students I teach.

Much of my teaching and parenting is informed by ABA, the absolute consistency, the rewards (verbal or tangible), and the breaking down of larger tasks into smaller ones. But there’s one element which for me has never quite sat right and that is the removal of a child’s special interest.

My experience as both a mother and a teacher is that the most progress happens if you harness a child’s special interest and go with it.

That doesn’t mean totally go with it – though I’ve been there too – the hours we spent in the early days re-enacting Disney princess films would have driven a saint mad. In fact we did it so often, I could probably still regurgitate ‘Sleeping Beauty’ to you now!

What I mean is that sometimes if you want to take a child out of their comfort zone you have to be willing to go out of yours.

Not long after the Bear’s diagnosis we went on a trip on The Disney Magic, one of Disney’s incredible cruise liners. Before the holiday the Bear was withdrawn, wouldn’t talk to unfamiliar people, and screamed incessantly when we went into busy places. On that holiday surrounded by her friends (the characters) she blossomed. She chatted to them, she played with them, she followed them. She was in her world, an environment she felt safe, and it gave her an opportunity to practice skills she would have felt were too overwhelming in any other circumstances. I saw my daughter in a different light. She was relaxed, happy, engaged. It opened up a world of possibilities. She made more progress in ten days than she had in the previous year.

And I still all these years later hold firm in the fact that without the people onboard that ship she would not be the person she is today.

Now I’m not suggesting a Disney Cruise, is a miracle cure, nor am I naive enough to think it would work for everyone. But what it did for me is give me an insight into a world of give and take. It gave me an understanding that sometimes if I wanted her to do something hard, I was going to have to create an environment that would enable her to feel safe.

Over the years it’s a lesson that has served me well.

I’ve taught teenagers who had previously refused to pick up a pen to write, and eleven year olds who were terrified to pick up a book to read. I don’t have a magic wand. I’m just one ordinary lady, armed with the power of a special interest.

I’ve created curriculums based around Minecraft, I’ve been a blue cat (literally for months on end), and there’s very little about a Pokemon I now don’t know.

Ultimately once a skill has been learnt, generalisation is needed, however, great a reader is they won’t pass GCSEs if the only things they can read are the names of Pokemon. But that doesn’t mean a special interest can’t be the place to start. It’s a place to build trust and find enthusiasm; a place to feel safe.

It’s an incredible tool, and one that as a mum and a teacher is my greatest ally in so many ways.

What Next?

If you do want to learn more you might find our autism section a useful place to start. It’s full of different strategies to try out.

Our online autism courses are also a great place to learn more.

Or why not join our private Facebook Group, which brings parents and teachers of children on the spectrum together to discuss strategies to help at home and at school.

If you join our tribe at the bottom of the post, you’ll receive a weekly email containing autism strategies and resources straight to your inbox.

And of course if I can be of any help then please just shout (or drop me an email).

12 thoughts on “Why Special Interests Matter

  1. I wholeheartedly agree. This is very much how we lead, guide and teach our son. Happy to hear from someone who has a positive perspective on ABA, too.

    1. I’ve seen some fantastic ABA programmes, and some fantastic ABA strategies used outside programmes. Like everything else it’s about how we use the tools we are given x

  2. I think special interests are fantastic and should be used as a starting point. We had to work hard with our son to help him work out when it was a good time to talk about his special interests and when it was a good time to stop. It sounds like you’ve acquired a lot of knowledge about subjects you never thought you’d learn about. For me I still have a surprisingly vast knowledge about dinosaur species thanks to an intense dinosaur phase that lasted for the first 10 years of my sons life. #spectrumsunday

    1. It really is amazing what our children can teach us! In our house it’s currently photography, which is incredibly useful x

  3. Completely agree with this. Our lives are generally about balance, give and take and picking our battles. We don’t always get it right but we need to live. All day in the iPad is not living. No matter how my parents try and justify it!! #SpectrumSunday

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