“YOU DON’T KNOW WHO GENERAL “SHAKES” EVANS IS?!”. That was the surprised reaction of Jake, a child with Aspergers, after hearing that I did not know about his 23rd favorite Civil War leader. Jake is a living, breathing Wikipedia of Civil War history. When he is not learning about it, he is talking about it. This is because the Civil War is one of Jake’s “special interest areas” (SIA).
SIAs are not uncommon among Aspies, in fact, about 90% have at least one (Attwood, 2003).
Here are the 8 most common Aspergers Special Interest Areas with typical examples:
1. Transportation (airplanes, trains)
2. Music (composing, drumming)
3. Animals (dinosaurs, frogs)
4. Video games (role-playing games, first person shooters)
5. TV and movies (Star Wars, anime)
6. History (wars, presidents)
7. Collectibles (Yu-Gi-Oh cards, comic books)
8. Art (anime, drawing)
Unfortunately, SIAs of Aspies can be socially problematic. Aspies may get “fixed” on talking about their SIA with others. As a result, some parents repentantly become frustrated or embarrassed, teachers may find it distracting in the classroom, and peers may become unfriendly. BUT, Aspie Nation, do not fear! Despite these concerns, SIAs provide invaluable strengths!
5 Strengths of Special Interest Areas among Aspies:
1. Self-Image – Children with Aspergers define themselves by their SIA. When asked what is most important to them, they rank SIAs second only to family. By engaging in these areas, Aspies feel more positively about themselves, find stability and find a way to make sense of the world. By denying these, we are denying them; instead, we should support them and help them feel comfortable in their interests.
2. Social Skills – Research shows that social communication improves when Aspies are engaged in SIAs. In these moments, they demonstrate better fluidity, fluency, body language, eye contact, attention and sensitivity to certain social cues. Because of these improvements, SIAs can be used as a social bridge when peers share similar interests. Video gaming, for instance, is a great way for Aspies to interact positively with other “gamers”. This has significantly influenced the design of social skill groups, as more and more people (myself included) are researching and practicing the use of SIAs like Dungeons and Dragons, gaming, and computers with interventions, yielding incremental benefits such as improved social motivation.
3. Emotions and Coping – The more Aspies positively engage in SIAs, the more likely they will have positive emotions (e.g., pride, happiness, enthusiasm). Additionally, SIAs can help Aspies cope with negative emotions, reduce anxiety and disrupt unwanted behaviors (e.g., tantrums). For example, when Jake gets upset, he uses Civil War information to calm himself down (e.g., holds a photo, reads an online printing). This can also be used to help Aspies get to sleep.
4. Skill Development – Aspies often have trouble with fine-motor and sensory skills (e.g., handwriting, tying shoes), however, SIAs can help perform related tasks. Although SIAs may not improve fine-motor skills directly (save a new Minecraft related drawing program), they have been shown to increase perseverance and task achievement. Similarly, SIAs help Aspies persist through tasks that challenge sensitivity of senses (e.g., sticky glue and bad smells when building a model plane).
5. School Performance – Integrating SIAs into school work can increase motivation and academic skill development. It can also improve academic achievement indirectly when used to manage disruptive classroom behavior. Notably, research shows that Aspies spend about 50% of their time reading when learning about their SIAs. This can help with reading performance and achievement. Lastly, Integrating SIAs into academic settings may assist the future development a career path. Like Temple Grandin and her interest in livestock, many Aspies pursue successful careers related to their SIA.
Children with Aspergers are fun, smart and unique in their special interest areas. They are the Star Wars fanatics we love, the amazing Halo gamers we’re afraid to play, and the role models of what it takes to become an expert in a given area. Although it is important to recognize and manage the negative ways in which their SIAs are expressed, accepting and supporting these interest areas is critical. In doing so, we are accepting them and just one of the many strengths within them.
Reference: Winter-Messiers, M., (2007). From tarantulas to toilet brushes: Understanding the special interest areas of children and youth with Asperger syndrome. Remedial and Special Education, 28, 140-152.