A Special Interest: An Obsession or a Tool?

A Special Interest: An Obsession or a Tool?

special interestWe all have things that we love to think and talk about.  For example, Chris enjoys to talk about his love for Disney World and Wine.  Ok, they are two very different things but they interest him and he happens to know a lot about both. For us at the Social Learning Center, another special interest is learning about individuals with social learning barriers. Some of us think a lot about this topic, and it is hard for us to shift off this topic when we are out at social gatherings or in settings where we really shouldn’t be talking about “work.” So yes, we are all “social learning nerds” but that is ok because in today’s vocabulary it is “cool” to be a nerd!

Intensity of Special Interests

Chances are, if you get one of us talking about what we do at the Center, we would go on and on, and maybe not even realize that you are losing interest! That will be the last time you ask us, “How’s work”? We all have those times when we just get “lost” in our own thoughts, world, interests, ideas, and maybe even separate ourselves from the rest of the world.  Most individuals thought to be more “neuro-typical” can “snap out” of their own worlds long enough to let others in or even travel into someone else’s.  However what about those individuals whose “special interest” is so intense, that they can’t turn off their thought and it starts to impact their daily functioning?

We have many clients who are “experts” in Minecraft, with gas-powered machines, literature, World War II, Pokemon, Lego’s, and the list goes on.  For years we have been saying to these guys,

“We can’t talk about that now.”

“Does this have ANYTHING to do with what we’re discussing?,” or

“Stop thinking about that and think about us”.


Special Interest: Missing Out and the Right Thing 

We get it, really!  There are many times we have individuals who can’t shift off their special interest long enough to partake in our social groups.  They may want others to be a Minecraft expert just like them; however, they are unable to understand that others may not share the same intensity of interest. There are several sides to this debate.

One is that from a developmental perspective, do they really know all that they are missing by NOT turning off that thought (or do they even care).

And the other perspective is, are we doing the right thing by saying, “stop” or “don’t talk about……” or “you can’t think about that any more”.

Special Interest and an Impact on Daily Functioning

We have many clients who have a history filled with social rejection and failure that social isolation has become their default, and with that comes this intense need to either learn as much as they can about a particular topic or obsess over that one “something.”  When this happens and individuals feel that need to put all their energy into just one aspect of life, they become paralyzed and they truly can’t think about the “bigger picture” or the things they are missing.

Any conversation they initiate with another person will be centered around that one thing. So how can we lessen the chances that one’s special interest becomes a cognitive obsession which can impact their daily functioning?

Engage in the Special Interest

It is natural for us to be drawn to people who do the same things/have the same interests that we do. We also understand that there will be others who may not necessarily like or care for the same things as us; however we are usually still willing to be a part of it because we have a connection with that person and want that person to have good thoughts about us.

So, instead of constantly telling your child/student/client to “stop talking about that, “or “this isn’t the time,” become a part of their interest! Partaking in your child’s interest (either by playing a few video games, creating an assignment based on their favorite author, or getting into a discussion about Minecraft or trains) will help them to feel that they have a connection with you.  It may also help them realize that their interest isn’t “bad.” On the plus side, instead of them talking “at you” about their interest, you can actually have a conversation about it!

A Special Interest and Perspective Taking

You can also partake in a child’s interest and use it as a starting point for them to see that it is common for people to do something they may not enjoy, but they do it to make others happy.  After a few times of being a part of their interest, you may want to get them thinking about how they felt when you were a part of something that they enjoyed; ask them if they liked playing that video game together, or what they thought of the awesome Lego tower you built as a team (chances are, they are going to feel pretty good/happy about it).  This can be a great start to get them thinking about how this is what motivates people to do things that others like to do.

Give the “Green Light” to a Special Interest

Give specific times during the day (both at home and school) where they have the “green light” to talk, think about, or do something pertaining to their interest.  Structure is an integral part of anyone’s day.  Routines and schedules help us to keep ourselves on track and know what we’re supposed to be doing or working on during specific times.  Therefore, we have found that giving your child certain times (that they are aware of ahead of time) to be able to get that “green light” will help them to realize when and where appropriate times are to indulge in that favorite subject or activity.

It may help to sit down with your son, daughter, client, or student at the beginning of each day/session/school day, write their schedule,  and also include specific “personal interest time” where they can get that opportunity to do or talk about the thing that they love. It will help to give them both a start and end time while you are planning, so that they are aware how long they will have and can plan accordingly.

A Special Interest and School Motivation

Ask yourself, how can their special interest help to motivate them in school.  It is good to plan out specific times for a child to talk about/ do something pertaining to their interest, but it will also be helpful to use their interests as reinforcers/motivators in school.

For teachers, if there is an assignment/activity you know may be a stressor for a student, you can frame it in a way that they get some sort of “prize” (whether it be a raffle ticket, sticker, etc.) after successfully completing the project/part of the project.  (“If you do A, B, and C, you will get _____ amount of tickets/stickers, and after you get ______ amount, you can do something you enjoy for ____ minutes”).

Depending on the student, some may need that instant gratification and need that “green light/ personal interest time” right after they complete an assignment. It is good to remember that being as specific as possible will help so that there are no misunderstandings.  Write down exactly what the student needs to get done before they get a certain number of prizes.  It may help to keep this information on their desk in front of them, so they can always see it.

Everyone has those certain subjects in school that they just do not like to be part of.  We have found that with our clients, there are some academic subjects that are bigger stressors to them than others; this can cause them to “shut down” or simply refuse to do something because they don’t see any reason to participate in something they don’t enjoy.

Ideas for Teachers

It makes sense because really what is their motivation to complete the assignment?  For teachers, if your student dislikes or “shuts down” when it comes to something like writing, you can use their interest to help motivate them.

Have them do a writing piece (that still follows their curriculum/academic goals) on their passion.

Gear reading comprehension and practicing fluency articles toward that particular interest for the student.

You can also include their interests in math problems; if you have a student who loves a certain baseball team, have them calculate batting averages.

If a student is studying probability, you can have them chart how many games their team has won and them have them find the “odds” of the team winning the next game.

You can even do something as simple as write a word problem for them to solve that involves that sports team or whatever interest they may have.

There are many creative ways to enhance schoolwork in all subjects to fit both the student’s interests and still follow state guidelines and curriculums/their individual goals.

A Special Interest and Emotional Connection Lessons

You can use a special interest to teach the varying levels of emotional connection.  We have spent considerable time talking with clients and groups about the fact that others will not share their intense interest.  And, that this disinterest does not make the other person bad, mean, and even someone who they can’t be friendly with.  We find many of our clients get stuck when we bring up the fact that mom and dad don’t even have to share in your interest AT THE SAME INTENSITY.

Liking, Loving & Obsessing

Some will comment, “But they have to because they are supposed to love me, and I love Minecraft, so therefore, they should love Minecraft”.  This speaks to the concept of “liking something”, “loving something”, and “obsessing over something”.

Talking with your child/student/client about the differences between these three emotional levels is extremely important.  We have found it helps when you “draw it out” for them, make a T-Chart and indicate those things that you, “like, love, and (if applicable), obsess over”.  Kids need to see the different levels of “emotional connection” people have to object-related activities.

Create Social Connections with a Special Interest

Search out others in your neighborhood, school, or other social circles who also may be “experts” in  the special interest area with the purpose of creating social connections.

Special Interest Clubs and Activities

Contact your Park’s and Recreation department to see if they run (or would be interested in setting up) various clubs.

If you work in a school, with the help of your student, think about setting up a club around their interest. There are a million different social and cognitive concepts you can be working on (executive functioning related, language related, perspective taking skills, etc.) by initiating such an activity.

For general education teachers, an exercise we have seen many do towards the start of the year is an activity around developing “people files” of those in your class. By doing an activity around getting to know the “likes and dislikes” of those you share space with is a great way to motivate your student to initiate a conversation over a similar passion. They may need support in doing this, but the opportunity may be there!!

Explore More >> Create a Friend File – a Tool for Social Integration

Find a Special Interest Expert

Bring them to visit a “real expert” in their area of interest.

Say your son or daughter is really into “gaming” or even “math”.  Seek out others in your community, local colleges, or business who may specialize in this area.  Give them a call and explain your interest in trying to set up a meeting for them and your son/daughter.  The purpose of this is to both expose them to someone else who shares the same interest, BUT to also let them see and hear about all the hard work it took to get them to the position they are in now.

We have several clients that the Center who want to be video game testers.  Truth is, we are sure they would be great at this.  However, there are steps we need to take to get there; people will not just hand us an opportunity like that.

You can integrate a whole “goal setting” activity around this experience and, hopefully with the “expert” you meet with, they would be able to validate all the hard work and goal setting it takes to reach a certain level (this way it is also not just coming from mom and dad).

The Bottom Line on a Special Interest

Their special interest, expertise, even “obsession” brings something to them.  More often than not, it brings them a sense of purpose, a sense of security, a sense of value.  Who are we “neuro-typicals” to take that from them??  What we need to do is support their interest and model healthy habits in performing or engaging in their topic of interest.  After all, our emphasis should not be on squashing their interests, but giving them the tools needed to find others who share that same interest.  In some cases, their interest may lead them to pursue higher education and later seek various employment opportunities.  So even though you may find designing cities with blocks boring and repetitious, give it a shot.  You will be showing your son, daughter, student and/or client that they are not that “odd” and their interests can be celebrated!!

Co-Authored with Erica Ciarciello, B.S, 2011 graduate of Keene State College in New Hampshire with a Bachelor’s of Science in Elementary Education and Psychology. She has been working as a Social Coach for the past two years at the Social Learning Center.