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Preferred Interests: Supporting Children on the Autism Spectrum

March 22nd, 2017 | 1 Comment | Blog

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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  • KathiMattea

    As the mother of an 18 year old girl on the spectrum I can’t agree more. Can you imagine discouraging a “typical” child from their passions? My daughter’s “stimming” with her Leapfrog ABC desk allowed her to teach herself to read. Playing Roller Coaster Tycoon gave her spoken language scripts that she could use to communicate. Did I love Roblox or Minecraft? Not especially, but I watched when asked, learned, and appreciated my daughters creations because it was important to HER. Just like I did with my other daughter’s Anime obsession, or my son’s love of playing catch with the football. Making a cake every other week was a phase that I’m glad didn’t last too long, but along with learning that skill, she learned about generosity, being kind to others, and how passing out her treats to neighbors and her siblings’ friends made them happy. As important as early intervention is, treating your child like a child, and letting them have down time to “stim” or do what they want is equally important. Engaging in that activity and showing interest shows your child you accept and value them. It opens up opportunities to broaden horizons and help your child grow comfortably. We used to hear my daughters comfort phrase “Dogs are silly” hundreds of times a day. Sometimes I would be required to repeat the phrase as well in order for my daughter to feel comfortable again. It was never discouraged since it was an expression of increasing anxiety. Now it only comes out 1-2 times a day and can even be the punch line to jokes we make up. My daughter was in a SDC class till 6th grade with mainstreaming in math starting in 3rd grade. She graduated from HS with a diploma and is now at the JC working towards a certificate in 3D animation. I’ve always allowed her to pursue her interests and showed interest in them and it seems to be paying off. She’s no where near a typical 18 year old. She doesn’t have friends other than her classmates at school and may never live independently, but she is pretty happy with herself and where she’s at in life right now.

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