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Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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3.2 Special interests

Many autistic people, both children and adults, develop an extremely intense special interest in a particular topic, sometimes becoming so absorbed that they fail to do other things, including eating and sleeping! Sometimes, the interest topic itself may not seem unusual, but what sets it apart is how strongly and for how long it is pursued. For instance, many young children love Thomas the Tank Engine, but they may not watch their favourite episodes incessantly and to the exclusion of any other children’s programmes, or still watch them when adolescent. Some autistic special interests are markedly different from those that most people favour as hobbies and leisure pursuits, focusing on unusual topics such as washing machines, or the Titanic passenger list, for instance.

Neurotypical people may struggle to understand the attraction of these unusual special interests, and parents may express frustration at the amount of time their child spends on their interest to the exclusion of other activities, and at the incessant questioning that may accompany it. Some autism practitioners argue that special interests are detrimental because they exacerbate social isolation and suppress other opportunities for learning. Yet the individual with the interest may find their chosen pursuit fulfilling and comforting (Grove, Roth and Hoekstra, 2016), and other practitioners believe that special interests can serve as effective building blocks for learning. For instance, teachers can make use of the special interest to develop reading, writing and other skills, or simply as rewards for attending to other tasks. Finding others who share the same interest may also lead to developing a circle of friends. There is much still to be explored in this field.

Activity 2 Special interests

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Read the two extracts in which autistic people describe their special interests. Do you find anything unusual about these interests – either the topics, or the way they are pursued? Make a few notes.

In fourth grade, I was … interested in both dinosaurs and astronomy, especially since this was the time of the Voyager flybys of Jupiter and Saturn. My appetite for information was voracious and I would clip or photocopy everything I could find on the subject in the newspaper, magazines, academic journals and books. I think my interest in dinosaurs waned at this point, though I remember an occasion when I went to the neighbourhood pool and I went up to total strangers asking them to ask me any question about dinosaurs because I felt I knew everything about them.

Sarah quoted in Sainsbury, 2000, p. 68

My parents and my family weren’t really into reading and the sorts of things I was interested in so it was difficult and it was hard for my family to appreciate the passionate way that I got involved with things. They didn’t understand why anyone would want 100 mice, for example, little white mice with purple eyes that I bred in Smiths Crisp tins covered with chicken wire in the garage, and they didn’t understand why I collected beetles or why I would line up my insects and race them. My sisters wouldn’t do those sorts of games, they played tea parties and dolls houses and I wasn’t interested in those sorts of things.

Lawson and Roth, 2011
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The first extract describes special interests which many other people share. But the engagement with the interest is very intense, and the attempt to involve strangers in ‘quizzing’ the writer is perhaps unusual.

The second extract describes passionate involvement in various interests, including mice. Keeping one or more mice as pets would not be that unusual as a childhood interest. But Wenn’s interest focused on one particular kind of mouse, and breeding lots of them suggests a strong drive to collect things, which Wenn acknowledges in his reference to beetles. Again, there is an intense and somewhat unusual way of engaging with several topics of interest.