Thursday, September 22, 2022

Strategies for Encouraging Your Child's Special Interests

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Are you wondering how to encourage your autistic or hyperlexic child's special interest? Here are some tips and strategies for encouraging special interests.

Many professionals and parents have been lead to believe that it's best to discourage or limit the special interests of autistic or hyperlexic children. 

And, too often, it's advice that so-called specialists have given parents of hyperlexic children about their letter play (see mistake #4 here). Maybe you've even been told this yourself.

But the research and the lived experiences of autistic people have told us otherwise. 

Besides, the benefits of special interests are plentiful. So why would we actively discourage something that is so valuable and beneficial to the well-being of autistic and hyperlexic individuals? It doesn't make any sense, does it?

Obviously, we need to be encouraging special interests, not discouraging them. So let's take a look at some strategies for doing just that.

Strategies for encouraging your autistic or hyperlexic child's special interests

Strategies for Encouraging Special Interests

Some special interests can be really easy to encourage simply because the topic is more broad or popular. So there's more options, books, and ideas available. 

Other interests, however, may be a bit trickier to nurture due to how specific or niche they are. As a result, there might not be as many available options. I mean it's not like it's easy to find a special interest group for kids who love elevators, especially at a local level.

Regardless, the following tips and strategies will help you encourage your child's interests, no matter what shape or form they take. 

We should be encouraging special interests, not discouraging them

1. Give them time to pursue their preferred interests and explore their interests fully

Remember, special interests often involve becoming an expert in that subject. That's what differentiates a special interest from a hobby after all. Besides, autistic individuals tend to go all-in on their special interests so it's important to give them the time and space to do so. Here are some suggestions:

  • Allow them to research the topic of their special interest in depth
  • Encourage them to explore related fields and think broadly about their special interest (e.g., an interest in astronomy = learning about constellations, how to use a telescope, using star charts, meteor showers, Northern Lights, planets, etc.)
  • Try not to interrupt when they're hyperfocused
  • Let them find a natural end point or give them a clearly defined end point when transitioning to something else (e.g., they'll stop once they've finished reading three pages in their book about planets or once they've spelled 20 words with their letter magnets versus enforcing a strict cut off time)
  • Provide them with reminders or use visual schedules to help with transitioning to something else

Special interests often involve becoming an expert in a subject

2. Respect their play, however that may look

Autistic and hyperlexic play can look different than what might be expected for a child their age. That doesn't make their play any less valid. You should respect their play no matter what it looks like. Here are some ideas:

  • Provide them with tools and materials to enhance their play (e.g., provide them with more letters or buy another logic puzzle book)
  • Let the play be child-led
  • Encourage their play versus limiting, discouraging, or taking away access to their interests
  • Talk about their play in a positive, strength based way versus calling their interest inappropriate, restricted, or childish, for example
  • Make sure that their therapists and teachers understand the importance of letting them engage with their special interests
  • Their interests should be incorporated into other activities, not used as a reward for compliance

Respect autistic and hyperlexic play

3. Show interest in their special interests

This strategy is a big one. Showing that you care about their special interests is one of the best and easiest ways to encourage their passions. You could:

  • Ask questions and talk about their interest
  • Let them infodump
  • Engage in the activity or play together
  • Plan experiences around their interests
  • Read books or watch videos together about the topic
  • Buy gifts related to their special interest
  • Pick up books from the library
  • Allow them to collect and keep objects related to their interest
  • Create things that incorporate their special interest (e.g., write a book together or make a video)
  • Be genuinely curious about what they are learning about or doing (i.e., don't fake interest)
  • Ask them to show you what they are learning about or doing
  • Show them anything you learn or see yourself that might be relevant to their special interests (could be a meme, video, or article or maybe it's an upcoming event, for example)

Be sure to show an interest in your hyperlexic or autistic child's special interests

4. Follow their lead

Special interests can change or come and go so it's best to simply follow their lead. That might mean you:

  • Respect their boundaries, especially if they'd prefer to engage in their special interests alone or they don't want to share those interests with others
  • Be supportive if they'd like to return to a previous interest or change topics completely
  • Let their play be child-led (yes, I'm going to remind you of that again!)
  • Let them explore and research their special interests at their own pace

Follow the lead of your autistic or hyperlexic child when it comes to special interests

5. Look for special interest groups, clubs, classes, workshops, camps, and/or local activities that may provide social opportunities around their preferred interest

One benefit of special interests is that they can provide opportunities to engage with others who have the same or similar interest. Here are some tips and suggestions for finding groups or clubs to join:

  • Check to see if the school or any local organizations or therapists offer any special interest groups
  • Browse Outschool for classes that might align with their interests
  • Look for clubs, camps, or groups that might explore related fields (e.g., if interested in video game design, you might register them for a computer programming or coding class)
  • Register them for specialized programs at school. There are lots of middle and high schools that have programs dedicated to science, math, dance, music, art, and more. They may offer more immersive learning opportunities with like minded peers than general education.
  • Try finding a mentor for them who has the same or similar interest
  • Find an online group, social media accounts, subreddits, or similar that are dedicated to the special interest so they can connect with others who share their interests (obviously, this tip would be for teens or older)
  • Encourage them to volunteer or get a job related to their special interest
  • Help them start their own special interest group and try to find others who might be interested in joining (making it a virtual group might be a great option if the special interest is really niche and specific)
  • Encourage them to start a YouTube channel or blog about their special interests as a way to connect with like-minded individuals and share their passions (again, depends on age)

Strategies for how to encourage special interests in autism or hyperlexia

A Quick Recap of Nurturing Your Child's Special Interests

There are lots of different ways to nurture, foster, or encourage your autistic or hyperlexic child's passions, as outlined above. 

You simply need to let them lead, while also respecting their play and showing interest in their special interests. You should also give them the time and space to explore their interests, as well as provide them with opportunities to connect with others who share those interests.

Whatever you do, don't discourage their interests (the exception, of course, being if those interests are harmful or damaging). Instead, we need to be encouraging special interests. Doing so will help our autistic and hyperlexic children thrive.

Strategies for encouraging your autistic or hyperlexic child's special interests