The Benefits of Special Interests in Autism
Only recently have researchers and professionals truly began to understand the power of neurodiverse Special Interests that often emerge in early childhood. Having Special interests is a feature of many neurodiverse conditions such as autism and ADHD, and they are far more than just things that people engage in when they are anxious or upset. There are so many benefits to Special interests and understanding how you can leverage them as a teacher or parent may be key to unlocking a child's potential.
What Are Special Interests?
Special Interests - all autistic people have them to one extent or another. A 2020 study found that, on average, an autistic child will have around 8 Special Interests at any one time. Clinicians have historically called them circumscribed interests, and they belong to the category of diagnostic criteria for autism called “restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities,” which also includes movements such as hand-flapping (stimming) and an insistence on rigid routines or structure. A distinguishing aspect of special interests is their intensity: They can be so absorbing that they are the only thing the person wants to do or talk about.
In his book, What I Want to Talk About, autistic author Pete Wharmby states;
'When I say 'I rather like...', I am afraid I am straining the simile to breaking point as, although it is a helpful comparison, it doesn't come close to do doing the phenomenon of Special Interests justice."
Hobbies are somethings that you do in any down time or free time you may have, often enjoyable an productive and usually things that very clearly mark a difference between work and play. Everyone has interests or hobbies, they are universal, but having Special Interests is unique to neurodiversity, especially autism. An interest may involve collecting items (dolls, stamps, postcards, coins etc), listening to or playing music i a particular way, or focusing intently on a particular topic and researching it intently. Some Special Interests are more common place than others - common ones being trains, cars, animals, dinosaurs - but literally any topic, object or activity can become a Special Interest. It is hard for neurotypical people to truly understand what a hyperfixation feels like, but it has been described as;
An interest that is intrusive, cropping up regularly in thoughts whilst in the middle of things, often to the point of having to drop things to indulge in it. It is also inexhaustible - an autistic person's interest will never tire or dwindle.
Interests may change with age, but many autistic people will still indulge in interests that they developed in childhood. In fact, many autistic people go on to have jobs or careers that are centred around their Special Interest. Famously, Dr. Temple Grandin is a wold-leading expert in livestock management following her special interest in animal science and behaviour and ability to 'think in pictures' to create more human slaughter houses. Additionally, John Elder Robinson used his Special interest in car restoration to open a store. He also taught himself about electric circuits and sound waves - he then used his self-taught knowledge to design guitars for the rock band KISS and toys for Milton Bradley.
Why do Special Interests Occur?
The drive for autistic people to have and then engage in Special Interests is similar to the drive that neurotypical people have to make and maintain personal relationships. This is not to say that autistic people don't want to form relationships, but neurotpypical people have a desire to look at others, look at faces and read body language and they continue to develop these skills to expert level over time. It could be argued that neurotypical people have a 'Special Interest' in people and relationships, though it is not defined this way as it is an innate part of neurotypical development, i.e. everyone does it.
It has been hypothesised that there is a biological basis to the Special interests seen in autistic people. Multiple brain areas are used in the formation and management of social relationships and if autistic people are born without the drive and pull towards social relationships, those brain areas may refocus on objects or subjects. Studies have shown that, when looking at pictures of their special interest, autistic people have displayed activity in an area of the brain known as the Fusiform Face Area. Unsurprisingly, this area is usually activated when processing facial expressions and facial features. We already know that brain regions can divert to other functions if they are unused for their original purpose - e.g. in blind people, the structures used to process vision can be rewired to process tactile information like Braille.
Additionally, research has hinted that the reward centre of the brain in autistic people is calibrated to respond more to interests than interpersonal experiences.
Shift in Perspective
Recent research is starting to reveal what many autistic people have been saying for decades - Special Interests are valuable to people on the autistic spectrum. Not only does it provide joy but it also helps reliably build self-confidence and helps people manage their emotions. Studies are also showing that engaging in Special interests helps children gain and develop social skills and can support learning.
Research is also expanding awareness that Special Interests are not just an avoidance activity that people used to engage in to manage anxieties, but instead they are intrinsically rewarding.
There's been a lot of negative language used around Special interests, things like 'obsession' or 'inflexible'...the real paradigm shift is thinking about special interests as more positive.
- Rachel Grove, Psychologist, University of Technology, Sydney
Instead of trying to limit or squash Special Interests, educators are now trying to incorporate them into the curriculum.
Using Special Interests is a game changer in the classroom and it has been demonstrated that incorporating Special Interests directly into the curriculum has had incredible results in children's learning.
In a 2016 review of many research studies, a 2nd grade teacher gave a student a book on Thomas the Tank Engine (the child's special interest) and in just a few months, the child's reading level had gone from a 1st grade level to a mid 2nd grade level.
Given that most of what we learn at school is auditory (i.e. we are being told things), researchers have investigated how autistic children respond to auditory information when it related to their Special Interest. For autistic children, hearing stories about their Special interest activated key language areas of the brain far more than when they listened to a story about other subjects. These results suggest that working Special interests into a lesson could be a great way to engage more autistic learners.
It's not just academic skills that can be developed by using Special Interests. In another example, where a child's Special Interest was the Titanic, a teacher would use the phrase 'iceberg right ahead' to reinforce the importance of respecting other people's personal space. Similarly, understanding a child's Special Interests can help them build social skills and make friendships. In schools where there are lunch or after-school clubs related to various special interests (chess, card games, comics), autistic children who may have previously been quite socially isolated, could now interact more confidently with peers.
It seems that, consistently, research is now showing that Special interests not only have practical benefits, but the benefits often go far deeper.
It reduces stress. It helps the person calm down when they are upset and they seem to make children genuinely happy.