Finding Strength in Special Interests: A New Way to Frame Autism

Christina Reuterskiold remembers a child client with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who loved to recite the dictionary.

“She read the words perfectly fine, but she had no idea what they meant,” said Reuterskiold, a Speech@NYU professor and chair of NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders.

Despite not understanding what she was reading, the girl exhibited no interest in discussing anything else. In fact, she would start to scream if another topic was introduced. While some might have deemed the girl’s interest a limitation in her learning, Reuterskiold saw it as an opportunity.

“Being able to decode new words is a strength,” she said.

Reuterskiold began tapping into the girl’s excitement to foster speech and language development. The client would read the word and Reuterskiold would act it out. The result was a newfound connection between words and their meanings.

The all-consuming nature of special interests is sometimes viewed as a hindrance to social and communicative development in children with autism – especially in a classroom setting. But speech-language pathologists (SLPs) have the opportunity to change that narrative, framing these interests as an entry point for language-building skills.

What are special interests?

One of the indications of autism is a strong attention to a specific topic. These special interests may take many forms and include things like subjects, objects, and activities. 

  • Subjects: Math, transportation schedules, movies
  • Objects: Trains, dolls, stuffed animals, puzzles
  • Activities: Reading, blowing bubbles, cleaning

Compared to the interests of neuro-typical individuals (people who aren’t on the autism spectrum) the level of attentiveness expressed by those with ASD is often characterized as intense, as is the child’s prioritization over all other communication or activities. Simply put, they’d rather be fueling their interest than participating in any other social interaction, according to Reuterskiold.

Special interests should also be differentiated from obsessions in the context of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), though there can sometimes be an overlap as about 17 percent of people with ASD have a dual diagnosis of OCD. Beyond being interested in a subject or object, some people with autism also exhibit repeated behaviors related to their interest, called perseverations, that are similar to compulsions exhibited in OCD.

Where special interests don’t differ – or shouldn’t – is in the encouragement and validation required from parents, speech-language pathologists, teachers, and peers, according to professor Kristie Koenig, an occupational therapist and chair of NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Occupational Therapy, who works with Reuterskiold.

“Affirming one’s special interests can be pivotal in improving quality of life at any age,” Koenig said. “Practitioners often spend the most time on remediating weaknesses. But no one builds their life on remediated weaknesses. We should be building them on strengths.”

How can special interests influence speech?

According to Reuterskiold, special interests present opportunities to develop intentional communication skills. She said there’s a difference between communication for the sake of interaction and communication that is backed by intention. The former is uncommon for children with autism, who often present as less interested in socialization. The latter is where parents and SLPs should pay extra attention.

Intentional communication is characterized by instances in which children are particularly interested in talking about a specific topic or need. Recognizing the genuine excitement that permeates a conversation is a hallmark of intentional communication and a sure sign of a special interest, according to Reuterskiold.

Like the client who loved to read from the dictionary, “when kids are eager to communicate, it’s an opportunity to learn new words, practice social skills, and tap into their special interests,” she said.

Language is best understood when it creates meaningful connections between words, in addition to nonverbal communication.

“For example, if you have a child interested in the subway system, but you force them to talk about vegetables or some other semantic category during a session, the likelihood of communicative success is much lower,” Reuterskiold said.

Reuterskiold recommends linking treatment strategies to something they can relate to in order to get the most out of each session.    

The graphic below outlines best practices, both for SLPs and parents, to keep in mind when encouraging special interests.

View the text-only version of this graphic.

What is a strength-based approach?

While special interests have historically been viewed as restrictive, Koenig said she believes that speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, parents, and educators can flip the script.

Koenig recommends that parents ask themselves: “What does your child like doing? What makes them happy? We ask this of other children and of ourselves all the time; why should kids on the spectrum be any different?”

A strength-based approach, according to Koenig, is that simple. Being attentive is critical to helping people feel empowered and secure in their curiosity. Koenig recommends the following strategies to enable communication: 

  • Spend less time trying to get them to be “normal.” “That’s a losing battle for the rest of your life,” Koenig said. Trying to get people with autism to act in a way that’s unnatural to them can foster feelings of insecurity and isolation. That effort could instead be spent on encouraging others to be more accepting and affirming of each other.
  • Be creative. Koenig remembered a client of a colleague who was captivated by the movie Titanic and had trouble acknowledging personal space with his peers. It wasn’t until personal space was put in the context of “Titanic” that things clicked. Saying “watch out for those icebergs” was all it took to connect the dots, and it helped the client navigate social interactions with others.
  • Put yourself in their shoes. “If you are deeply interested in something, why wouldn’t you want to talk about it?” Koenig said. Empathy reminds parents and SLPs that everyone has a passion for something, and encouraging those interests – no matter what they are – is an opportunity to connect with each other.

Across the life span, these tactics are helpful in supporting and empowering people with ASD in their linguistic and social development. Identifying and affirming a person’s passions can be simple, as long as others are willing to be attentive.

“When you allow kids to lead conversations,” Reuterskiold said, “you’re able to understand what speaks to them.” 

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Citation for this content, Speech@NYU, the online SLP program from NYU Steinhardt