There is great importance placed on autistic children not oversharing their ‘special interests’ too much with others as a goal often set for them in social skills training.
Firstly, they aren’t ‘special interests’.
They’re interests with an expert level of knowledge and/or ability as the result of a brilliant, gifted neurology called autism that has the capacity to drown out all interferences and distractions to develop a superior knowledge level.
What an incredible advantage, right?
Hmm. Yet we’re labelling this advantage as a deficit; a hindrance that interferes with others liking and accepting our children.
We consistently overlook the madness of the ever shifting goal posts for autistic children. These posts create more confusion than clarity.
We have varying rules and expectations dependent on a child’s neurology and let’s not mistake their neurology for their ‘needs’, please.
They’re just needs. Yes, they belong to a person who’s neurology differs from what is considered in pathological terms as ‘typical’. But they’re just needs. Yes, they’re different from the needs of others. But human beings are different from each other, and we all have varying needs.
We must stop applying ‘extra’ and ‘special’ as a preterm to the same interests, preferences and needs that autistic children have as regular children because they differ.
Whilst we encourage non autistic children to share their interests with others, while we take pride in their collections and projects; we teach autistic children to not talk too much about their own. This is to save them from being rejected, misunderstood and bullied by those who don’t share their interests or depth of commitment to their interests, and to help them to ‘fit in’.
But what if by placing so much importance on ‘fitting in’, we rob the world of a skill set, a brilliant human being with expert knowledge to make significant impacts in positive ways?
Where is the education for non autistic children in order to understand and accept their autistic peers? Where is the responsibility taught to them around how to respect and appreciate diversity?
Rather, we are teaching our autistic children to shut down the most brilliant, luminous parts of themselves. They are expected to take responsibility for all those, children and adults included who aren’t willing or who are resistant to evolve in their understanding and acceptance of humanity.
On the other hand, parents are consistently given the advice to use their autistic child’s interests as a commodity, an emotional and behavioural exchange in the economy of social skills. Parents are encouraged by professionals to use their child’s interests to assist in the development of a non autistic mask- more typical, more acceptable by appearance only.
An act, a performance of learned social skills, rather than a freedom to flourish, to bloom and to thrive as an autonomous autistic person.
And then we question why our autistic children become unmotivated or unwilling to participate in activities and projects.
Autistic children and gifted learners must be afforded the right to be children. They must be allowed the space to enjoy and develop interests freely, without the pressure and demand of always being ‘exceptional’ at anything they show interest in.
But when they do show exceptional ability and skill or interest, it’s wonderful to explore this by following their lead. Allowing them to make their own choices about where they take their interest.
When a child says to us “Look at my new dress”, “Mummy, see this painting I did”, “I have a new friend” or “Did you know that the Siberian tiger inhabits environments of ice conditions only?, then we should listen, show pride, ask more questions, stop and acknowledge, show interest or fein interest (as we do from time to time, let’s be real).
Imagine shutting down a child who brings to you a piece of their pride, their confidence, their work.
“Don’t talk about it too much, you’ll drive people away.”
This is what we’re teaching our kids on the spectrum.
And it is damaging.
When an autistic child showers us with their interest, all the fine details, all the intricacies and facts, it’s our job to read between the lines.
It’s our job to recognise that what they’re saying is “See me. Hear me. Take pride in me. Accept me. Let me know I’m okay; that I’m worthy.”
It’s great to connect with our children through their interests. To join them, to follow their lead.
It’s not okay to decide for them that they will be a concert pianist as an adult, commit them to piano lessons once a week that they didn’t agree to and then to remind them at every opportunity that this is what they should be doing with their life because they’re skilled at it, simply because they showed an interest.
This is how we drive them..away.
This is how we cause shut down.
It is wonderful to follow a child’s lead, allow them to teach us, let our superiority and authoritarian guards down and become teachable.
Because after all, that’s why they’re here.
To teach us, to evolve us.
They are the new, we are the old.
Yet we remain in a perpetual loop of elitism attached to age.
It’s time for a rethink.
Autism & Neurodiversity Support Specialist