If a computer is not running Windows, does that mean it is broken? We need to change the way we think about autism, Asperger’s, and everything in between. Therapy often focuses on fixing or getting rid of autistic symptoms, but what if we focus on understanding them? What if having a different operating system is a strength? What if being on the autism spectrum were not labeled or considered disordered? What if we embrace neurodiversity?
Our therapeutic work then begins with self-acceptance and a celebration of one’s unique identity on the spectrum, with the focus of the strengths that come with this portion of an individual’s identity. Those on the spectrum typically have a specific or obsessive interest such as the weather, dinosaurs, geology, history, stocks, or hundreds of other topics. Their interest in these subjects is hyper-focused in that they can concentrate and focus on something longer than most people are able. Such remarkable strengths accompany this crew: focus, concentration, persistence on task, and memory skills! The challenge for these talented neurodiverse individuals is to live in an allistic (i.e., not autistic) world that tends to pathologize even their amazing strengths.
Blend In or Stand Out?
Society continues to place social demands on all of us, demands which include conformity to an invisible set of rules, following a strict developmental timeline, and an emphasis on “blending in.” If our brains are wired to do one or two things exceptionally well, and the mind is designed to engage in these interests for hours on end, why is socialization emphasized when there are far more interesting things in which to engage?
As you already know, people on the spectrum will not conform, and honestly, may not wish to blend in – and why should they? Rather than focusing on conformity, let’s celebrate the special interests and help folks find their place in an overwhelming and confusing world. If we can remember and celebrate strengths, the path forward quickly becomes clear: use the strengths to provide cover for the area of concern.
Is It a Special Interest, or a Strength?
Many folks on the spectrum have special interest areas (SIAs). An SIA can be almost anything that grabs the person’s attention, and about which they typically consume all of the available facts, experiences, and skills. When practiced productively, SIAs are what allow these individuals we diagnose based on deficiencies to excel in their field, making them the best game designer, software engineer, or history professor around. Without guidance, however, these areas can be unproductive, restrictive, and pervasive. Here are a few suggestions on how to help your specially talented clients capitalize on their SIAs.
Strengthening Self-Image Using SIAs
Children and adolescents with autism often 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, rather than dismissing them, or attempting to reprioritize the SIA, folks with autism 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.
Jack is a young adult with a passionate interest in history, social justice, and some remarkable programming/GIS (geographic information system) skills. Jack is quick to engage a conversational partner in topics about his interests, sometimes to the point of alienating the listener. We can gently steer Jack toward an area where he could use these skills. For example, he may want to volunteer for a political campaign team of his liking. Folks who are campaigning need Jack’s passion and his programming/GIS skills so that they can get the right message to the right audience. Jack can leverage passion and skill into a successful career, or a creative volunteer position. As Jack utilizes his interests to benefit a larger purpose, Jack is no longer talking at people; he is with his peers, making the world a better place, and has a sense of purpose.
Strengthening Social Skills Using SIAs
Social communication improves when people with autism are engaged in SIAs. In these moments, they demonstrate better fluency, body language, eye contact, attention, and sensitivity to certain social cues. Because of this, SIAs can be used as a social bridge. I often use video games, Lego, and table top games (e.g., Dungeons and Dragons) as a way to improve social skill development and provide my clients with a great environment to practice them and make friends.
Jill has quite a passion for Pokémon Go. Her parents are somewhat embarrassed by this passion and have quite clearly and repeatedly discouraged her from talking about Pokémon Go. Jill is now somewhat reluctant to talk about it, but when invited to discuss that topic, she lights up! She has better posture, is clearly engaged in the topic, and she is articulate on the topic, helping me understand how she processes information and codes (what she perceives to be) relevant data.
Jill is encouraged to go to the park to engage in a Pokémon Go raid at the local park, where she sees some folks she recognizes. They strike up a conversation. While they don’t make any further plans or exchange contact information, Jill considers this a very successful outing as she feels less lonely and marginalized. (Of note, don’t be asserting your goals in lieu of Jill’s goals! She did what you wanted: she left the house and talked to someone. Don’t make her conform to your newly revealed goals that she needs to also make a friend on that first outing!)
Using SIAs to Manage Emotions and Facilitate Coping
The more your clients positively engage in SIAs, the more likely they will have positive emotions. Additionally, SIAs can help your clients cope with negative emotions, reduce anxiety, and disrupt unwanted behaviors.
Pokémoning Jill is a good example of this. When she can get outside, walk around, get some sunshine and fresh air, and engage in Pokémon Go, she observes that on the whole she is less anxious. Sure, the first couple of times she was asked to try a new park she felt anxious, but she was able to try new things because she was also engaged in her passions.
When people, all people, engage in their passions, they are happier, less stressed, and healthier. You may need to be direct in coaching this skill to your clients, but it is truly worth it!
Using SIAs to Increase Skill Development
Folks with autism often have trouble with fine-motor and sensory skills (e.g., handwriting, tying shoes); however, SIAs have been shown to increase perseverance and task achievement (Attwood, 2007). Similarly, SIAs help those on the spectrum persist through tasks that challenge sensitivity of senses (e.g., sticky glue and bad smells when building a model plane).
Imagine that Jack did indeed land a job in a political campaign, programming GIS information. It is brilliant fun. Unfortunately, he is asked to make some phone calls, a task that is remarkably distasteful for him. If forced to make these phone calls, he will consider quitting the job. (You already know what fictional Jack will be saying in your actual office: “I wasn’t hired for this! Let me do the GIS, please! I could just send an email instead of making the phone call! Come on people, get with the program!”) We can use Jack’s passion to increase his motivation to learn skills around anxiety management, practicing some phone skills, and then practicing some negotiation skills at work!
Using SIAs to Generalize School Performance into Job Performance
Integrating SIAs into school work can improve motivation, behavior, and academic skill development. Many of us use our passions to foster the development of a successful career path. Like Temple Grandin and her interest in livestock, many folks with autism pursue successful careers related to their SIA.
Because our clients can be so literal and can struggle to generalize, you can identify a clear path (preferably series of paths) from a person’s passion to job opportunities. You can help your clients identify their strengths (strengths that they may take for granted, like memory, visual spatial skills, or innate poetry) and help them see how those strengths may be used in areas other than their passion.
Imagine that Jack gets frustrated with the politician’s inability to grasp the data set that Jack provides. Jack churns out amazing data but fails to recognize that his skills are far and above what the general public possesses. Further, Jack may think that his GIS skills can only be used with a political campaign. Ends up, GIS skills are great with Emergency Services organizations, including estimating response times, rerouting responders to open roads, and the like. Jack could have a career almost anywhere, but instead may limit himself to campaigns. You, the creative, bold therapist that you are, can help Jack generalize his skills, recognize his strengths, and use his innate talents to realize whatever goals he is brave enough to share in your office.
Just because many computer systems come with Windows installed, and we are all used to it, does not mean there are not alternatives out there that might work better. In fact, some alternative computer systems might be faster, more innovative, and even more useful. Likewise, understanding our autistic clients’ unique operating systems and strengths is imperative to successful treatment. These amazing clients have unlimited creative problem-solving skills, though they have sometimes been asked to not tap into their strengths, may have been ashamed or embarrassed about their interests, and may be shy to share their strengths. It is your job to tease out the strengths, highlight them, and put the strengths to good use. Who knows, if you do your job properly, Jack and Jill can use their strengths, and then can you even imagine the possibilities? Maybe the Windows operating system we assume is the best is really not the best we have to offer.
Recommended Resources for Professionals
Recommended Resources for Families
Max Gamer: Aspie Superhero comic book series
Autism/Asperger Network. www.aane.org/
About the Author
Frank W. Gaskill, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and founder of FatCatPsych.com
He works with individuals on the autism spectrum and consults on the development of autism programs and private practice development across the country. Dr. Gaskill is the co-author of Max Gamer: Aspie Superhero.
Attwood, T. (2007). The complete guide to Asperger’s syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.