Who knew threading beads and a trip to the laundromat could mean your kid would eat casserole?
It is common for those on Planet Spectrum to be very passionate about a particular subject or object. A less friendly term thrown around is ‘obsession’. Be it trains, cars, horses, clocks, washing machines, necklaces, dinosaurs… you name it!
There have been many connections, breakthroughs, learning opportunities and tricky situations navigated all thanks to embracing passions and as we lovingly refer to them as motivators!.
According to the National Autistic Society:
Autistic people often report that the pursuit of such interests is fundamental to their wellbeing and happiness, and many channel their interest in studying, paid work, volunteering, or other meaningful occupation. The interest can:
- provide structure, order and predictability, and help people cope with the uncertainties of daily life
- give someone a way to start conversations and feel more self-assured in social situations
- help someone to relax and feel happy
My little guy’s first passion was clocks passion was ‘clocks’. He was infatuated! Mister would see clocks and be so excited and full of joy. His happy flapping could have powered a wind farm!
We used his love of clocks to get us through many situations. When we had appointments in town, we would look at clocks and we would use them to redirect when stress was starting to build- “Oh look M there’s a clock let’s go and see if we can find more.” Often this was just the trick to get an anxious and almost frozen child to keep moving and coping.
We would allow ‘extra’ time so that there was always enough to look at clocks, so that we could provide a positive experience in a less than positive sensory environment, like the shopping plaza. As mentioned, shopping centres and plazas can be a nightmare for people with Autism. They are a sensory powerhouse led with many sounds, colours, people, bright lights, smells and textures.
When we visited health professionals, we could have a hard time. In his early days, Mister could not stand anybody looking, talking or touching him. Again we used his love of clocks to coax him into calm, while providing an excellent distraction.
Preparation, like any social outing, was essential. We wanted Mister to be as amicable as possible with the health professional, so before we went in for a consultation we would prepare; “Hmmm M, I wonder if the doctor has a watch? When we go into the doctor’s room, let’s see if she has a watch or a clock in there.” This would have a child going from a level of anxiety that had shut down potential to excitement about the possibility of seeing a clock or watch-let me in! We would start the consultation with “Hi doctor, we were wondering if you have a watch or clock in your of office?”
By this stage, Mister would have already spotted a clock on the wall but be able to connect with the doctor as he searched their arm for a watch. This would be followed by whatever conversation needed to be had by the professional- but we would often use more detail if M was becoming distressed or anxious. We would redirect back to the passion. “Oh M, look it’s a blue watch! Can you see it ticking?” You get the idea…bring it back to the passion where possible. The special interest is so familiar and has the potential to provide calm.
We learnt to use Mister’s passions for motivation! Many a clock collection was found on YouTube and used for rewards.
After the clock phase, M branched out to necklaces and washing machines. Necklaces were brilliant. Shopping trips included jewellery store crawls and frequent stop ins to admire bling. It also meant a barrier breakdown between Mister and people, particularly therapists.
We used Mister’s special interests to engage anywhere and everywhere we could. During speech, via daily play and just living. Through showing an interest in Mister’s passion, we were able to engage with Mister like never before, even without words.
The few times I have had to be away for the day I have brought back cheap necklaces so we were able to build that association of when mum goes, it’s a good thing. You can see how I’ve used the love of necklaces to alter an anxious situation fraught with separation anxiety into acceptance.
When Mister was on a food strike, I’d sometimes set up beads and string for threading. He would be threading, and I would be spoon-feeding. Not an ideal eating situation, but this example reiterates how helpful it can be to use special interests, and how they can provide a platform to cope and get through.
So what happens if your Spectrum Kid doesn’t have a special interest?
Our other poppet doesn’t seem to have such special interests. What now? For Miss, it’s all about talking, drawing and craft. So I guess you could call this kind of style her special interest. If Miss has a task that has something to do with her hands, this equals a happy and content disposition. If not, then this equals a whole lot of anxiety and when she doesn’t know what to do it leads to panic. Trust me when I say there have been plenty of days where we have done more craft than Mister Maker.
When we embrace these passions and special interests, we are able to connect with individuals, motivate, value, share and engage.
I have heard it said by lots of people that the ‘obsession’ part of Autism drives them mad, and new distractions need to be found. But if the apparent ‘obsession’ isn’t harmful to anyone, it can be a beautiful doorway into your child’s heart and mind.
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