Like many autistic children and adults my son has, what are generally discribed by professionals, as a ‘special interest’ or two. That is to say he will hyper focus onto a subject and wants to know everything about it..I prefer to call it a specialism. The reason I very deliberately call it a specialism rather than a special interest is because often when special is tacked in front of another word it now has the connotations of being different or wrong or strange and a negative thing and I do not see his special interests as a bad thing at all, in fact quite the reverse. Having or perusing a specialism on the other hand means you have an academic interest and are an expert or on your way to becoming an expert in a certain area and has a much more positive feel to it.
Often teachers and other professionals try to move children away from these specialisms believing they narrow the field of learning or become an ‘issue’, I do not agree.
Recently I read THESE RESULTS of a study on ‘special interests’ and the crux of it is that it showed children learn better when they are doing something they enjoy and have an interest in. Not exactly rocket science is it?
When my son had to come out of school due to school based anxiety and trauma he was finding engaging with any sort of education almost impossible it was those specialisms I called upon. He had lost interest in pretty much everything but his ‘special interests’ were the last things to die. He has three main areas of focus – dogs, cars and film and tv. At one point he had over 600 model cars, 500 DVDs and an enormous collection of toy dogs of every breed you could imagine! However it was always about collecting information as much, if not more so, than collecting the items. The items where just an outward expression of his inward desire to know everything about those subjects.
By moving my approach to topic based learning I basically gave him permission to explore these areas as part of his education.
Our first topic was dogs and I think it is a teacher who lacks imagination who can not get all the main subject areas into this one. We did a DNA test in our dog and learnt about DNA, created a family tree for him from it, looked at the breeds in the family tree and the history of that breed, looked at the countries of origin and so on. As you can see we already have science, genetics, history and geography in there while still focusing in and around my son’s specialism.
Our next topic was inspired by my son’s favourite film franchise and an exhibition in our local museum called ‘The real Indiana Jones’ about a local explorer, Percy Fawcett, about whom a film was also made. Again that took us on a mammoth journey learning about explorers, truth and fiction, the rainforest, survival and so on.
The point is focusing and exploring specialisms does not mean learning has to be narrow, it is only as narrow as the educators mind is or isn’t.
For my son too it makes the hard bits worth it. That is to say that he is far more willing to read or write about an interest than he is to just practice reading and writing because his dyslexia means those areas are not easy but when he is interested and engaged he doesn’t notice that so much or he is willing to persist because he is emerged in the subject.
But I don’t see SIs as just a way to get a child to learn, I think they of huge benefit and therapeutic value to autistic people, both adults and children. They give the opportunity to connect with others through common interests, they may create work or business opportunities, they provide down time from the world outside and help to regulate mood and above all they bring joy.
To stifle these areas of an autistic persons interest, we stifle them, to say they need to move away from them is to crush passion and joy, to stop them is to put a stop to all the potential places and opportunities that these interests might take them, to dismiss an interest as stupid or not valid is to reject and devalue that person too.
On the other hand if we ask about them, if we immerse ourselves in these areas and see them from an autistic persons point of view we might learn something, not just about the subject of interest but about that autistic person and how to better connect and build a relationship with them. For this reason I actively encourage and support my son’s interests and specialisms, listen to and marvel when he shares the information on them he has stored in his head and join him in his joy when he finds a new piece of information, or a new film or super car comes out. It brings us closer, it moves us away from a state where he might feel I am forever trying to drag him into my world, by me joining him in his.
Dr Becky Wood’s own synopsis and opinions of the results of her research can be found in this excellent article HERE