One of the defining characteristics of autism is a narrow range of interests. Many of our kids develop strong interests which may be a positive force, providing motivation and a way to connect. At other times, the interests become obsessive, and our kids sound like Gollum, muttering “my Preciousssssss” while gripping their beloved Pokemon or Star Wars figurines. Legos, Disney princesses, ceiling fans, Sesame Street, Angry Birds, video games, Anime, license plates, game shows, horses, flags, planets, presidents, and traffic cones are among the many themes that attract kids with autism. Some interests create possibilities for social interaction, while other interests are obscure and create social dead ends, or lead to obsessive hoarding and collecting of objects and facts.
Think about your own special interests, and the special interests of people close to you. People have a huge range of interests: some people love knitting, scrap-booking, chess, science fiction, bikes, NASCAR, football, bird-watching, Triathalons, World War II, country music…….although we think of these interests as being driven by our personal preferences, they are also influenced by variables such as exposure and social reinforcement. Familiarity plays a role, as well as the history of sharing enjoyment with friends or family.
Kids with autism often stick with their familiar interests and may not be open to exploring something new. But they will stand out as different if they still have a Dora lunchbox in 3rd grade, or if they are talking incessantly about Webkins in 8th grade. They will become outsiders if they don’t know what movies, characters, music, sports and current trends the other kids are talking about. Children with autism may not pick up on the contagion of emerging trends from their school-mates. Sometimes parents are fearful that their own values will be lost if they allow their child to learn about commercially popular topics. But kids with autism are often more influenced more by the adults in their lives than by kids their age.
Typical kids push their parents to allow them to have access to trendy items and characters, even if their parents are squeamish. Many parents are not entirely comfortable with Spongebob or Spiderman, and don’t want to spend hard earned money on SillyBandz and Skylanders. But typical children will learn all they can about popular topics, even if their parents don’t let them actually watch or buy. If other kids are playing superheroes, and your son doesn’t know the names and special powers of superheroes- then he will be left out of the fun. If you are not comfortable with exposing your child to certain violent or sexual themes present in popular culture, you can still teach your child some of the basic information needed to join in. For example, you may not want your child to watch the music video for Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory” but they should be able to recognize her in a picture, and be familiar with the song.
How to help a child with autism to develop new interests?
1) First, figure out what other kids the same age as your child or slightly older are interested in. Develop informants among typical kids the age of your child or a little older. Brothers and sisters of other kids with autism or family friends may be better choices than typical peers that your child interacts with socially (who will think you are weird for asking). Remember that trends often trickle down from older kids, starting in middle school or even high school and gradually catching on with younger children. Monitor kid’s channels (Nickolodeon, Disney, PBS all have websites) for younger kids, and check out kid’s award shows (Kid’s Choice Awards) to see what’s new. Monitor advertisements on kid’s channels to see what’s being marketed to kids, and look at t-shirts to find out about characters/celebrities/themes. For older kids, pre-teen magazines (J-14, Twist) are an easy source to keep you current.
2) Consider which among the theme/interests that are currently popular might be a good bet for your child. Think about how to introduce the new theme: is your child a mover, a watcher, a listener, a toucher? Does your child like very rule-based/structured activities? Is there a way to introduce this interest in a way consistent with his strengths? Kids avoid activities that are particularly demanding for them and are pulled into what is easy and successful. Some kids tend to find any movement a lot of work — others are really challenged by sitting still for 5 minutes. If you want something to catch as an interest, don’t introduce it in a modality which is difficult for your child. Consider strengths and weaknesses in fine motor (i.e. drawing) , gross motor (physical coordination), language processing, speaking, memory, and rule based thinking.
3) Figure out a plan for introducing the new interest. Some do’s and don’ts that may help: do use a non-parent role model, such as a preferred older sibling or a preferred therapist; don’t introduce a new interest when they are engaged in an existing interest; don’t remove a preferred item/interest in order to introduce new interest; do take advantage of moments when preferred items or other amusements are not available; do consider preferred formats such as board games, reading, and electronics, do think about interests which may share themes and structures with existing interests.
4) Keep in mind that some interests may be impossible to establish. During the elementary years I tried to drum up enjoyment of Hannah Montana, with no success. I did manage to establish American Idol which continues into this….11th season. No one else in my family could do more than tolerate watching shows like Hannah Montana or iCarly, but American Idol became a special family occasion, with tracking sheets, dinner conversation, and favorite snacks.
Some more examples of interests and how parents have gotten them started:
Sports: One parent introduced baseball through a familiar, preferred format, the Wii, before introducing to actual play/watching games .For a preschool child who loved matching, a parent introduced football through an NFL logo matching game.
Celebrities: for kids who have histories of intensive teaching programs (ABA/VB) you can insert naming new characters, celebrities, and conversational responses about songs, superheroes (who says “to infinity and beyond?).
Music: it’s easy to move on from Barney by putting popular music on in the car while you drive to therapy and singing along. You may personally prefer the Grease Soundtrack — but knowing all the words to “You’re the one that I want” won’t help your child when the other kids are singing and dancing to “Moves like Jagger”. Karaoke and dancing can be lots of fun on the Wii or Xbox. I always remember how one mom introduced a what became a fun social activity to her son through dancing the Cha-Cha slide, a good first choice for a child who is strong at following oral directions. Line dancing is also a good choice for a child who is a good imitator.
Don’t give up! Sometimes, you will put hours of time and energy into introducing a new activity which never catches on. But with persistence and hard work, you will succeed.
I am grateful to many parents who have taught me so much by sharing their lives with me. I am also deeply indebted to Rob Harvey and Andrea Wetzel.
“I give you the light of Eärendil, our most beloved star. May it be a light for you in dark places, when all other lights go out”.