In recent times, there have been more discussions and studies about how Autistic individuals’ ‘special interests’ – or passions, as I prefer to say – can help them in various settings, such as the classroom. Given the positive impact my passions have had in my life, I can see the value in incorporating these into our learning and engagement, when done so from a place of respect.
So how can our passions enhance our everyday lives? Passions can give us a feeling of consistency in a world that is often unpredictable. For me, I rely on horses to function. I find my anxiety tends to increase and I feel more withdrawn when I have not spent time around horses or in Nature for a while. Knowing my love of horses is always there for me and accessible helps me feel secure and safe. And when I do not have time to go and visit the horses, having a dog as a companion helps me reconnect to Nature. Being around animals instantly calms and grounds me. Memorising facts, watching videos online, and visiting animals has become my coping mechanism. I often watch rescue animal videos online when I am traveling on public transport or I am in busy environments. This is a huge reason why I am currently in the process of training my dog to be an assistance dog. It is comforting having someone at your side in difficult environments.
My passions shaped my identity. As a child, I was echolalic and would often mimic the words of my favourite people and characters. This helped me learn language and social cues. When I was older, spending time around the horses continued to shape my understanding of emotions and behaviour. My body language, self-esteem, and confidence improved as I spent time around the horses and my equine instructor translated what was occurring into human words. It taught me so much about interacting with people. I talk more about this topic in my presentation at the Yellow Ladybugs Symposium which can be viewed here.
Not all of us Autistics have the same passions or interests! We are not all into mathematics, science, and IT. You see us in all different pursuits: Artists, musicians, scientists, teachers, writers, and more! And some of us may have more than one intense passion. I have a friend who has multiple areas of interests that rotate depending on how much research they wish to do. Some parents have worried that their child doesn’t have a burning passion. Not all Autistic individuals may have a specific passion, and that’s okay. We are all different and it is not a hard-set rule that we need to have intense interests! Like any child, with time and the right support, your child will eventually find something that really motivates them.
Also, our passions can be incorporated into our curriculum, and help engage us in a variety of subjects. This can help us relate to topics and see more relevance in studying subjects we may not be drawn to. One of our presenters Jane Hancock writes a fantastic in-depth article for teachers on how to incorporate interests into an Autistic student's learning. You can read it here.
Some Autistic individuals who may have less obvious Autistic traits (internalised profiles) can slip under the radar because their interests are viewed as ‘normal’. For example, being assigned female, it was not that unusual for a girl to love animals and horses. The intensity of the interest, however, became apparent when I would launch into huge monologues about horses and different types of breeds. It can be difficult, especially if we have obscure interests, to find people who share our passions, or who are willing to listen to us. I used to find it frustrating when people would roll their eyes when I excitedly informed them of my latest findings, or simply ignored me. It used to make me quite sad, and it was at those times I felt like an outsider. One of the best things that happened to me was connecting to like-minded individuals who shared my love of animals. A friend of mine, who is also Autistic, and I mainly discuss dogs during our catch-ups. And this works best for us! It is so validating finding people who see and accept you for YOU.
Another topic that comes up often is the apparent ‘inappropriateness’ of particular interests in Autistic children and adults. For some reason, when we hit a certain age, suddenly our interests are no longer acceptable. I still love old Disney films (and most adults enjoy watching them with their children, right?). Adult films tend to scare me. I still have a massive toy collection. This is not something I am ashamed of. If it is not harming anyone, why should it matter what our interests are?
To teachers and parents: it is important that you help the individual nurture and expand upon their passions and interests, and encourage them to explore this in everyday and educational contexts. When the person brings up their interest, or starts to infodump*, try your best not to dismiss the individual. Instead, work out ways together that they can explore their interests. This is vital for their wellbeing and could even shape their careers!
Finally, I would encourage any individual, Autistic or not, to explore their passions in their careers. Do not panic if you are not sure whether you have a clear-cut passion. Sometimes you may need to explore different topics and activities before finding some that you resonate with.
*Infodumping is a common term used in the Autistic and Neurodivergent community. It refers to when a person talks at length about a particular passion of theirs.