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  • Writer's pictureDr. Lisa Marnell, OTD, MBA

"Special Interests" in Autism

An important topic is “special interests” in autism.

A question frequently asked is about how school professionals, OT included, should guide an autistic child to interact with others so that they do not perseverate on their “special interests”. Let's consider this . . .

First and foremost I propose that we use the term “interests” or “passions” rather than “special interests”. Using the word, “special”, suggests an alignment with the terminology Special Ed or Special Needs, which puts a person on a trajectory of pathology or something that needs fixing.

Secondly, let’s step back and consider whether we are using a medical model or social model of disability in regard to this topic. For those of you not too familiar with these terms, a medical model suggests that there is an inherent problem that is pathological and needs fixing. A social model suggests that a person’s presentation or trait is perfectly fine EXCEPT that it causes them to either not fit in or not access the world - society prevents a person’s independence/ autonomy/ agency etc.

I am on the faculty at Boston University, and I am autistic. I suggest that we do not try to teach a child to “mask” or “camouflage” their true selves, but instead teach them that some NTs (neurotypicals) will get quickly bored with a conversation focused on a single topic, and that this has nothing to do with the autistic person, but rather to do with the fact that people are wired differently.

Also, let’s honor and autistic student’s interests. Are there other kids in the school or classroom who share the same interest? If so, then THIS PERSON may be a perfect candidate for introduction!

Further, once a child understands that he is not flawed for speaking about his passions (but rather that NTs may not enjoy such informational banter), then brainstorm with this autistic child to see if any of his other interests are shared with other students in their classroom. Minecraft, maybe? The idea here is to ensure that an autistic child does not feel shamed for having passionate interests, but that he realize different wiring affects interactions.

This is a long post, and I will end by sharing my own experience:

As a child, one of my favorite interests was snails (and to be honest this continues today, big time). Rather than trying change this, my dad (autistic as well) and my mom encouraged me to learn all I could about them. Also, in elementary school, when snails were discovered outside at recess, other kids would run to show me as they knew of my interest. I am SO GRATEFUL that my interest in snails was honored. But too often this is not the case.

I can go on and on about passionate interests in autism, but what is important is for us to stop assuming that neurotypical views of the world are the way to go for everyone. Even NTs have unique interests. Let’s start to open conversations in elementary school classrooms about each of our interests. Let’s make a chart in a classroom and put it on the wall, where celebrations of the passions of every single student is presented!

I KNOW every OT and school professional cares deeply about our clients’ welfare.

What are your thoughts on this topic?

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