Understanding Special Interests and Aspergers

Q:Dear Lisa,

“I have a son diagnosed with moderate to high-Functioning Autism who is currently enrolled in public Middle School. Though he is going through a natural teenage rebellion, I feel his autism is playing a huge role in the challenges he (and we, his parents) is currently facing. He struggles to communicate and he has poor receptive language, so even though he is very verbal- a lot of times he misunderstands. And then he misinterprets and he gets very angry.

He has been on meds since he was 5 to maintain mood. In the last few months he has become increasingly consumed with the computer, staying up late, wanting to sleep late, and only coming out for food. I know how to do all the schedules and what not, but he doesn’t care or want to comply. He is 6 ft tall and 250 pounds. He has an excellent teacher that provides structure in his Total Language Communication class.

Our son Trevor is addicted to technology. When we (his parents) as well as his teacher at school try and limit on-line play time he has become angry to the point to hitting the teacher and his father.

He ran away from home but the police brought him back that same day. I hate the computer! But he plays Minecraft online and has friends that he talks to. It is like his only source of socialization. So we are at a point where we may need professional support to help him get motivated to do something. I’m out of ideas. And I’m tired. please help!”


A: Dear Rebecca,

Thank you for your very specific question that I’m sure many will relate to very closely. This is one of the most frequent questions that I am asked from both parents and educators.

In an Interactive Autism Network (IAN) questionnaire of 250 adults with ASD, 84 percent reported having a special interest or topic. A majority of those said they enjoy activities or develop relationships based on their topic, or have a job or field of study related to it. Some, however, said their interest sometimes gets in the way of success at work, school and in relationships (45 percent), or has gotten them into trouble (23 percent). Common interests include animals, computers, music, science and science fiction.

Famously, Temple Grandin Ph.D., who has Autism, turned her special interest in animals into a notable career as an animal scientist and designer of livestock handling facilities.

While every person with an Autism Spectrum Disorder presents their own strengths, challenges and interests, there is not one clear or simple answer. There is, however, a group of strategies that can be helpful when used together consistently. I’ll do my best to provide information so that you can create a plan of action that will best fit your loved one or student.

As noted in a research article that I have referenced, it is important to remember the following: “In their special interest, these children and youth acquire clear focus, a way to organize the world, a social approach, and a way to interpret life.”

In addition, persons with autism often indicate that the special interest is what helps to deal with anxiety that comes from a neurological origin [too many sights, sounds, textures, etc.].

As one young lady with high functioning autism explained, “My stress is always between a 5 and a 10. It gets worse in loud classes like Biology, Latin, Art and AG. Reading on my phone [about Transformers] helps to deal with my stress.”

Imagine what life must be like for someone who is more often stressed than not, at least in certain environments. I think we can agree that we would seek out anything to help deal with that chronic stress.

So while we might be compelled to take access to the special interest away when it becomes problematic, I offer an alternative plan of action.

In a nutshell: provide structure that will help to clarify reasonable limits as to where and when the individual may engage in the special interest.

The following strategies may be used in concert to help transition from the highly preferred special interest to the less preferred activity presented, often of an academic nature.

  1. A visual schedule that indicates when in the day there will be time dedicated to the special interest. The visual schedule itself can be decorated with pictures of the special interest to increase motivation to use the schedule. A simple checklist is a version of a schedule that many of us use in our lives to help organize our brain.
  2. Some students may benefit from a transition marker that will help refer back to the schedule. Once again, a transition marker may be decorated with a picture of the special interest to increase motivation to use the transition marker.
  3. You may need to have a specific area where that special interest activity may occur. At school, there may be a designated “break area” or desk where they may engage in that preferred activity. At home, it could be a specific room or location where that can occur. For some students, a label can help to define this area, helping the brain more readily disengage from the preferred activity. For one student with an extreme interest in videos on the computer, separate computers were identified for break time and work/academic time.
  4. In addition, some type of visual timer will help the individual anticipate how long they can engage in the highly preferred activity.
  5. Some additional visual supports include, but are not limited to:
    • Time to pause car
    • First/Then board
    • Social Story/Narrative
    • Rule chart that relates to a special interest
    • T-Chart that clarifies what is O.K. and what is not O.K. in terms of the special interest
  6. Have you ever hit your snooze button on the alarm in the morning? For those extra difficult transitions, it may be helpful to provide “Extra break time” cards that will help the student regulate any anxiety they might have about ending the highly preferred activity. Offer a certain number of “extra break cards” with different times on each to further support self-regulation.
  7. Incorporate the interest throughout the day whenever possible. If the student’s special interest is rabbits, how can we use rabbits to teach algebra? While it isn’t always a good match, I have seen some very creative ways to incorporate these very special interests. By doing so, you can expand experiences while still providing access to the special interest. At the very least, it is often easy to decorate strategies with pictures of special interests as you see in the “extra break” cards.

I would further recommend reading a research article on this topic at: Interactive Autism Network Community

The following is an excerpt from the above article that I think provides exceptional insight:


We discovered that SIAs had some very positive effects on some of the classic deficits of children and youth with Asperger’s. Traditionally, children and youth with Asperger’s exhibit deficits in the areas of language, social communication, emotions, and problems with sensory stimuli and fine motor activities. However, we found that these deficits were diminished when participants were engaged in their SIAs. 41

As we interviewed participants and later listened to the taped interviews, we noticed distinct changes in the participants’ speech whenever they talked about their SIAs.

Some participants began to show significantly more enthusiasm and emotion when asked about their SIAs. In some participants, we noted that their speech was much clearer and they used more advanced vocabulary when talking about their SIAs. For example, when responding to general questions, Charlie repeatedly gave answers such as “Uh, I don’t think so, I just, whatever,” consisting of simple one or two syllable words with no clear content.

When asked about his favorite thing to play with, however, his speech pattern changed instantly as he confidently replied, “My favorite is a Yu-Gi-Oh™ card that combines with three Blue-Eyed White Dragons, and due to polymerization it forms those three into a three-headed dragon.” 42

Our team also observed improvement in body language, particularly an increase in eye contact and expressive gestures that accompanied speech. Further, we noticed a remarkable decrease in self-stimulation, distraction, and body movement in and around the tables and the participants’ chairs.

All of our participants enthusiastically talked at length about their SIAs. The participants noted that they saw nothing unusual or extraordinary about their SIAs. Participants shared that they felt positive emotions when actively engaged in their SIAs, including enthusiasm, pride, and happiness. Danny could barely contain his joy in repeatedly telling the interviewers, “I was born to like…Walt Disney. Walt Disney is my life. Disney has been my most happiest hope in my whole life.” 43  

Nate, whose SIA was musical composition, proudly told the interviewers, “My parents think I’m an unbelievable, amazing drummer.” 44   Convinced of his successful future in composing music scores for film, Nate confidently declared, “The reason I wanna move back there [to Hollywood] is, I wanna be a composer and, and just take over John William’s job, get into that job, and compose Harry Potter, The Terminal…just, before I do that, I have to learn the notes”. Nate described how the music made him feel. “I like composing music for movies so that I have a good feeling…I like feeling sad, happy, scared, sneaky.” 45

Individuals with Asperger’s often find intense smells, loud sounds, or personal touch highly unpleasant. 46  Rising to these sensory challenges, our participants persevered for hours at a time when involved in their SIAs in spite of intense stimulation from model airplane glue, modeling clay, horse manure, goat odors, sawdust, sweat, sticky or dirty hands, and the bright lights, rapid movements, and loud, startling sounds of video games.

Though children and youth with Asperger’s typically have acknowledged difficulties in tying shoelaces, fastening buttons, and handwriting, 47,48 our participants spoke not only of their advanced fine motor skills, but of extreme perseverance and patience in the fine motor skills that their SIAs required such as drawing, building, sculpting, creating models, playing keyboards, using video controllers, and playing musical instruments.

SIAs clearly serve a very positive purpose for children and youth with Asperger’s. SIAs are vital to their well being; they are viewed by children and youth not as a hobby or leisure activity or interest, but as an integral part of who they are.

In their special interest, these children and youth acquire clear focus, a way to organize the world, a social approach, and a way to interpret life. SIAs are not taken lightly by children and youth with Asperger’s, and neither should they be taken lightly by parents and teachers.

I hope this Q & A has offered some insight and ideas that you can personalize for your son.



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1 Comment

  1. It’s easier to get Mom & Dad to understand this than it is to get a spoucse onboard when they become jealous of the time and attention you SIA consumes or force your efforts of self regulation underground. We often have to give it up or hide it…. It can really cause a great deal of resentment toward the spouse.

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