The Power of a Special Interest
Ok this one sounds like it might get technical. "Special Interest?" What, now?
It won't. Simplicity is the key, folks. Especially right now, my brain has very little space for getting technical, and I'm sure your brain needs some breathing room, too. #COVID19
So what, exactly, is a "special interest?"
Without getting technical, let's dive in.
Here's how a few autistic people recently described what defines a special interest to them:
"It's like being in love."
"When I can't stop thinking about it and even though I go about my usual day, I somehow seem to find it everywhere and in everything."
"It makes me feel like I'm hugging my best friend."
"It feels like home."
A special interest is not: an obsession; a distraction; an addiction; a crutch. (Though in unhealthy circumstances, a special interest could become one or more of these things if not tended well, just as love can become toxic if mishandled.)
So in short, a special interest, for someone who is autistic, is a particular thing that brings that person joy, and therefore which that person spends a lot of time thinking about, learning about, or simply immersing themselves in. A special interest can be an object or type of object (trains, dolls, clocks), an activity (playing video games, nature trailing, reading, working with animals), a person (one's significant other, a celebrity), a body of study (chemistry, history, language), or any number of things.
My special interest (for those who don't know already... ;-D) is Harry Potter. #potterhead
What special powers does it have?
Mighty, mighty powers.
Think about it. If you are in love, it sustains you, right? Whether it's your significant other or your children/parents/siblings/friends or any person whom you love - That love pulls you through the hard times (and the very hard times). It gives you strength and worth and purpose and momentum.
And the momentum here is key.
Because without momentum - without forward motion - life would stand still, and we'd be stuck in it, good or bad.
"An object at rest, stays at rest... unless acted upon by an unbalanced force."
- Newton's First Law
The propensity for a person with autism to become stuck - mentally, physically, emotionally, etc. - is great. Greater than the average Jo. (<--Purposeful gender reversal, BTW.)
I get stuck ALL THE TIME. So stuck.
Sometimes it's because I'm over-analyzing or I'm getting overloaded by my senses, sometimes it's because I am simply out of energy to move forward because I've been employing myriad coping mechanisms all day, sometimes it's because my routine went sideways, sometimes it's just because.
And when I'm stuck, I need a way out. I need a way forward. --> Enter, special interest.
I see it all the time with my son now, who is 4 years old and has two very clearly defined special interests: Cars (closely partnered by trains), and the color Green.
For the last year+ we have been trying to help my son learn how to use a scooter.
He seemed motivated, but never really put in the time to get the hang of it. He got frustrated seeing other kids his age and a little older using their scooters so effortlessly. He got tired of trying and failing. He got overloaded by the feeling of the bumps he road over vibrating up through his hands and arms.
Then we got a green scooter.
And voila! Off he goes!
I'm not even kidding you - it was like flipping a darn switch. One day he was giving up on the scooter and the next day he was flying.
So the next time someone from his school comes to me and says, your son gets very upset when he can't use the green square and he needs to learn that he can't always have green - instead of just plain agreeing, I'm going to say, sure, he understands that the world is made up of more colors than just green, but if that green square is all he asks of life to help him get through the chaos and noise and social interaction overload that is his school day, then please, let him have the green square. He is self-regulating so that he can be successful and move forward. It gives hime momentum and purpose and identity. It's his one true love, and it will sustain him in ways you don't yet know.