Thomas was proud of his young son “Roger’s” remarkable knowledge of birds. Roger’s grandmother, an avid bird watcher, had shared birding books and toy bird replicas with the boy when he was young, and he had shown such great enthusiasm for the topic that at age 3, Roger could identify more than 50 types of birds.
But when the boy was diagnosed with autism, a therapist took a more guarded view of Roger’s intense interest. The therapist described the boy’s constant chatter about birds as “stimming”—short for self-stimulating behavior. Suddenly, the father worried that the conversations about birds that had been such a source of joy for him and his son might actually be causing harm to the boy.
I have long been wary about discouraging children from discussing topics they enjoy. How might this affect the child’s emerging sense of self? How might it influence the child’s budding confidence in his or her thoughts and ideas?
A new study sheds some light on this question. Researchers found that 96 percent of autistic adults believe “that children’s preferred interests should be encouraged and that being able to focus on these interests has helped...more than hindered their success in life.”
That finding confirms my long-held belief that, far from causing harm, these focused interests help young people to gain mastery, confidence, and even to connect with others over their interests.
The study also serves as a reminder of how valuable it is to hear directly from autistic people, who can enlighten us about their negative experiences with treatments that are based on the medical model view of autism as a disorder. In the DSM–V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V American Psychiatric Association, 2014), the medical diagnosis of autism includes “highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g., strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interest)”.
It is no wonder that many professionals, including therapists and teachers, view preferred interests as negative symptoms rather than recognizing them as qualities to be respected in treatment.
As a child psychologist, I am concerned about the message we send children when we fail to value their preferred interests. It is important to consider the mental-health impact of repeatedly instructing children to turn away from their passion and instead focus on other topics that other people deem more important. For each child, it’s important to reflect on this consideration before “consequencing” those interests away.
That’s why, after I consulted with Roger’s treatment team and gained their support, I encouraged Fred to continue engaging with his son around the boy’s interest in birds. I assured the father that enjoyable activities alleviate stress and provide more fun and joy. I also suggested that he discuss his concerns with his son’s entire team in order to find ways to honor Roger’s interests and depth of knowledge as a way to deepen pleasurable interactions with others.
Instead of discouraging children’s natural inclinations, I advocate moving toward a strength-based approach in which we see preferred interests as something to be respected and valued in autism support.
Koenig and Williams offer these helpful suggestions:
- Therapists and educators should identify and encourage individuals’ preferred interests by incorporating these interests into therapeutic and educational experiences.
- We should explore individuals’ preferred interests and identify ways they can be utilized to provide positive, calming experiences.
- Professionals working with adults with autism can recognize and leverage the potential that preferred interests have for both avocational and vocational pursuits. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0164212X.2016.1248877
When we incorporate and value a child’s interests, rather than discouraging them, we build stronger relationships, while simultaneously supporting social and emotional development. So let’s have compassion and embrace children’s passions! We will all be better for doing so.
I describe additional ways for providers to support children’s psychological resiliency in my new book, Social and Emotional Development in Early Intervention.
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