Everyone has different types of interests or hobbies. People with autism have special interests. I think that they look at a special interest in a very different way than “typical” people do. I believe the difference is that people with autism make this their sole focus; they constantly talk and think about it, their behavior is motivated by it, and it can be very hard to get them to move on to something else.
From when I was about 2 to 5 years old, my special interest was alarm systems (not alarm clocks). I was so fascinated by them, specifically fire and burglar alarms. I thought that it was so cool how these alarms could detect movement and sound off a loud sound that then automatically contacted the authorities. I remember how I would make my parents sit down all of the time and draw alarm systems for me. One specific time I remember that I asked my parents to draw a pool alarm that was at my local community pool that served as a motion detector. I was so interested in alarms that I even made my teachers draw me the fire alarms at school during lunchtime.
When I was about 6 to 8 years old, my special interest was first aid. I made my own first aid kit and I thought of myself as very prepared. I asked for first aid kits and other medical supplies for my birthday! I still have a first aid kit that I made many years ago. My family and I recently went through it and it brought back so many funny memories! During lunch at school, I would ask for bandages and gauze pads from the yard duties at school. If I was feeling bold, I would even go to the school nurse and ask for a splint or adhesive tape!
From the age of 8 and on, my special interest has been business. At first it was to make some extra money, but now I do business because I think it’s fun! I started selling bags of chips out of my room for $1. Then, at age 8, I started an online toy selling business called “Ethan’s Cool Stuff” where I sold squishies (pencil toppers). This business even did international business with China! I also got my product into a store!
Later, at age 10, I started “Ethan’s Trash Services” where I took out my neighbors’ trash cans and brought them back when they were empty. After this, I started “Ethan’s Mason Jars” where I sold cookie mixes in a jar to friends and family. I now know that I want to have a career in a business-related field! Currently, I am the CFO at PastaManTony, a YouTube-based Italian cooking channel that teaches college students, entry-level professionals, and newlyweds how to cook easy, inexpensive, and delicious pasta dishes.
Many people think that special interests become obsessions and discourage productive behaviors. While these special interests can become too time consuming and obsessive, they can be used in a positive way as well.
My advice for parents, caregivers, educators, and providers is to use these interests to your advantage. Use them as a reward for good behavior. For instance, my rewards for good behavior included having my parents draw me alarms, going online and watching alarm company commercials, and going to the store to look at the medical supplies aisle and purchase an item. I was allowed to go look at the security alarm in the restaurant if I followed the “restaurant rules.”
Allow a school essay or project to be about the special interest. There can be many benefits to these interests. One is academics. Business has helped my math skills a great deal. I learned statistics, accounting, Excel spreadsheets, and basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division at a much younger age; I was motivated to learn these due to my interest in business.
Besides academics, another benefit is the outlet to social interaction and friendships. If your student or child is having a hard time making friends, use this special interest to maybe find another child who shares the same interest.
My advice for autistic individuals is to keep enjoying your hobbies and special interests! Don’t think of it as an obsessive behavior; think of it as a unique talent that you have. Find a way to turn this interest into a job, a way to make friends, or to learn some new skills.
Special interests are often seen as obsessions but that has such a negative connotation. Start to think about these in a different way. Everyone needs to be accepting of special interests. Use them to help your autistic student or child achieve the goals that you have set for them. We have so much to share with the world and special interests are just one way that we can express ourselves!
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