Nurturing Special Interests as Career Foundations When There Are Different Abilities
Updated: Jun 2
By Emily Ansell Elfer, BA Hons, Dip.
Sophie watched her son Thomas playing with his train set. Round and round the trains whizzed around the track, and they had been doing so for hours. Far from bored of the game, though, Thomas remained enthralled, and his little face was lit up with glee. You see, trains were his special interest, and he could talk about steam engines for hours on end.
Although Sophie took pleasure in seeing her son's enjoyment, she was also frustrated. If she tried to discuss other topics with Thomas, his eyes glazed with disinterest. She worried about how he would enter the workforce when he left school if he did not develop a desire to learn about anything other than trains.
What is a special interest?
Does the scenario above sound familiar to you? If so, you might be an autism parent. It's common for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to show passion that borders on obsession for a very specific topic, and it's common for parents to find this concerning.
Many people pursue their interests with intensity, but this tends to be heightened in autistic individuals. Known as "special interests," the subjects people become attached to can vary greatly, but some of the most common (according to online forums) appear to be trains, maps, history, math, and astronomy.
Because special interests are often restrictive, they tend to be thought of as a deficit rather than an advantage associated with autism. However, along with utilizing resources such as early intervention and tutoring, appropriately nurturing a special interest can prove rewarding as a child develops into adulthood.
In fact, a study by Winter-Messiers (2007) reveals that when autistic children talk about their special interests, their behavior, communication, social, and emotional skills improve. All of these are excellent life skills to take forward into the working world. This article will focus specifically on how children's special interests can be cultivated by parents to evolve into future careers.
From special interest to career
Before we delve into some tips for parents to use at home, I want to highlight a few examples of autistic adults who have turned their special interests into careers.
Renowned autistic advocate Dr. Temple Grandin, Ph.D., is perhaps the most obvious example. She enjoyed drawing horses' heads repeatedly as a child. Instead of discouraging the behavior, her mother developed her daughter's art skills. It is surely no coincidence that Dr. Grandin ended up forging a career designing livestock equipment.
"My mother had a very good sense of just how much to stretch me. Not just suddenly force me into something I couldn't handle but stretch. And she always encouraged my ability to draw. Now I would tend just to draw the same horse head. She'd say, 'Let's draw the saddle.' 'Let's draw the stable,'" Dr. Grandin told Beaming Health.
Autistic writer Dr. Bernard Grant, Ph.D., is another advocate who sees huge value in nurturing special interests and is evidence of how a passion for writing can evolve into a vocation.
"I know many autists who have turned their passions into careers. Other writers, yes, but also psychologists, academics, software developers, entrepreneurs, HR professionals, musicians, lawyers, and scientists. These are examples, not limitations: because our interests are as wide-ranging as those of any other neurotype, autists work in every field," he explains. "Autistic interests serve many purposes. [...] Not only do we develop expertise in areas that lead to careers and self-fulfillment, we also use our skills to advance society, helping others."
Tips for using special interests to your child's advantage With all of the above information in mind, here are some ideas for how parents can cultivate their children's special interests for the future.
Encourage group involvement
If your child always engages in their special interest alone, take the opportunity to encourage socialization with peers. For example, if your child enjoys design, have a look at courses or groups in which they can get involved. If they have a passion for trains, perhaps there is a local train spotting society. Meeting other people with similar interests will help build communication and encourage skills such as teamwork, discussion, idea sharing, and turn-taking (all of which are key for the workplace).
Expand (don't steer from) the interest
To help your child become more versatile for future careers, think about expanding their special interest rather than steering away from it. Just think, Dr. Grandin had a fascination with drawing horses' heads and ended up thriving in designing livestock equipment. So, if your child is interested in computer games, take a look at IT courses and software development, if your child is passionate about football, think about sports management courses, if your child is intrigued by planets (or one particular planet), get them thinking about astronauts, science, and engineering. You can start creating a spectrum of subcategories that branch out from the original special interest. This approach to learning should be easier than trying to get your child interested in something completely unrelated to their passion.
Provide relevant tools and technology
Source the appropriate training, equipment, and technology to support your child's special interest. For example, invest in cameras, tech devices, and editing software if it's photography. If it's painting, invest in quality art supplies and art classes or courses. Your child will be happy you are supporting their passion, plus building their experience in using technology and professional equipment will stand them in good stead for building a resume.
Strike the right balance
It's all very well saying special interests can be a strength, but striking a happy medium is important. For example, if your child is spending all their time on computers and it's impacting their daily life (for example, personal hygiene is not being maintained and they rarely leave the house), some intervention is needed.
The "first, then" approach can be a useful way of using a special interest as a reward. For example: "First, we are going for a walk in the park, then you can play a computer game." This is another way of preparing for the working world, as there are always some tasks in the working day that are more appealing than others!
Most children excel in areas where their interest is most intense, and this is no different in children on the spectrum. By incorporating autistic children's passions into learning and encouraging them in an appropriate fashion, parents can prepare them for the future. This is true no matter how niche your child's interest might be, as there are so many jobs available; a role that might be tedious for one person due to its repetition could prove truly rewarding for another.
A key final thought to add is that a child who feels encouraged and supported in their interests is probably more likely to thrive. So, instead of attempting to steer autistic little ones away from their passions, let's nurture them and enjoy watching them grow.
Anthony, L. G., Kenworthy, L., Yerys, B. E., Jankowski, K. F., James, J. D., Harms, M. B., Martin, A., & Wallace, G. L. (2013). Interests in high-functioning autism are more intense, interfering, and idiosyncratic than those in neurotypical development. Development and psychopathology, 25(3), 643–652. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579413000072
Attwood, T. (2003). Understanding and Managing Circumscribed Interests. In M. Prior (Ed.), Learning and behavior problems in Asperger syndrome (p. 126–147). Guilford Press.
Baron-Cohen, S., Ashwin, E., Ashwin, C., Tavassoli, T., & Chakrabarti, B. (2009). Talent in autism: hyper-systemizing, hyper-attention to detail and sensory hypersensitivity. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 364(1522), 1377–1383. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2008.0337
Grant B. Autistic Interests. Specialisterne USA, July 20, 2021. https://www.us.specialisterne.com/autistic-interests/
Hurtado, A. A Conversation with Temple Grandin in 2022. Beaming Health, September 19, 2022. https://beaminghealth.com/article/a-conversation-with-temple-grandin-in-2022-highlights
Jordan CJ, Caldwell-Harris CL. (2012). Understanding differences in neurotypical and autism spectrum special interests through Internet forums. Intellect Dev Disabil. 2012 Oct;50(5):391-402. doi: 10.1352/1934-9556-50.5.391. PMID: 23025641
Winter-Messiers, M. A. (2007). From Tarantulas to Toilet Brushes: Understanding the Special Interest Areas of Children and Youth With Asperger Syndrome. Remedial and Special Education, 28(3), 140–152. https://doi.org/10.1177/07419325070280030301
Emily Ansell Elfer, BA Hons, Dip. is an NCTJ-qualified journalist whose work is published in newspapers, magazines, and across multiple websites. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Female Health & Fertility, a former Editor of Autism Parenting Magazine, a former Editor of B2B food publications, a former Deputy Editor of Toy World Magazine, and has managed content for the likes of International Women's Day, Amazon, McDonald's, and Diageo. Emily is proud to be continuing her work in the special needs sector as a Content Writer for Exceptional Needs Today.