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special interestsSome Isms, particularly Autism and Asperger’s syndrome, come with “Special Interests”.

While you usually have very little influence over the choice and development of a special interest, once you recognise it for what it is, you have access to the most powerful learning and motivation tool available.

What are Special Interests?

A special interest is an extreme focus on a specific topic. It can last for a few months or years, or it could last a lifetime.

Not so long ago, people with disabilities used to be credited with “savant” abilities or the development of new or heightened “senses” to replace other senses affected by their disabilities. While these things can happen, they’re actually quite rare. Most of the amazing people with Isms are using pretty similar abilities to everyone else – the difference often comes down to focus, and in particular, focus on areas of interest.

Explore A Look at Special Interests

How do Special Interests Develop?

There’s usually no conscious decision to follow or develop a special interest. It seems to occur because of a unique set of coincidences which include – exposure, age, initial interest and accessibility.

Some interests, such as Star Wars have a much higher chance of selection due to repeated exposure.  Three huge films over a ten year period, with a ton of merchandising in between offers repeated exposure.  There’s a reason why it’s the special interest of nearly an entire generation.

Others, like “Dinosaurs” or “Ancient Egypt” or “Trains” appear because they’re recurring topics in our mass media or popular children’s books. Sadly, the sorts of topics that parents dream about, like mathematics or sciences tend to be much rarer.

Detecting the Special Interest

I can remember when my eldest was first diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.  My wife and I were eagerly trying to identify our son’s special interest. We were looking everywhere for signs that our son was fixated upon a topic without realising that at five, the boundaries of any topic in our sense of the word were invisible to him.

We thought it was cars, then transformers or perhaps wheels until it started to dawn on us that seemed to be any kind of machine- even those like hand-dryers which he was terrified of.

Now that he’s in his mid-teens, the special interests no longer hold any mystery. Whenever we are seated at the dining table, we can be sure that certain topics will always find their way into the conversation, no matter how much we try to avoid them.

Problematic Special Interests

Most parents have issues with their children’s special interests. My parents had problems with my focus on “Doctor Who” from the tender age of four and they tried to dissuade me from the topic, getting the school library to stop me from borrowing the novels.  I ended up buying them, hundreds of them.  Forty-three years later, it’s still an obsession.

As parents, you probably won’t be entirely satisfied with your child’s interests but unless they’re actively and severely damaging, you should leave them alone. It’s okay for an adult to still like SpongeBob or Lego.  These don’t count as damaging but an addiction to porn or guns probably needs intervention. Some kids develop an interest in socially unacceptable things, including body odours, excessive gore and even feces. Next to these, an obsession with stuffed bears is fine.

If an interest is damaging, the best you can do as a parent is to make the bad interest harder to pursue while making other good interests more readily available. You can’t force a change of interest but you can reduce support of it.

Explore Is a Special Interest Becoming an Obsession?

Harnessing the Special Interests

As your child develops interests, the best thing that you can do is to ensure that you at least have a working knowledge of it. This will mean that you always have a way to engage your child in conversation. Beyond that, a knowledge of the interest will greatly assist you in motivation.

There are many methods for motivation via special interests starting with simple bribery where you promise something related to the the interest to your child such as a toy, a token, computer or TV time. 

From there, you’re only limited by your imagination.  Tie fighters docking can substitute for spoon feeding or spaceships can substitute for anything in math homework. Do you have a quiet child who won’t talk about their school day? The opportunity to do it in Darth Vader’s voice could be too tempting to resist.

Don’t stop at simple school work though. Chances are that if you have discovered your child’s special interest, they’re thinking about it almost constantly. It’s amazing how many people follow their childhood special interests into adulthood and sometimes, into fulfilling and lifelong careers.

Explore Simple Ways to Turn Passions into Lessons

The special interest really is the key to everything and a wonderful tool for motivation!