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  • drfrankgaskill

Using Interests to Drive Skills and Growth on the Spectrum

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Strength based programming is preferred, yet we sometimes tell people on the spectrum to stop following their interests and plug in to what the rest of society determines.

As a psychologist, I celebrate the spectrum and teach others as well as the community to do the same. What do I mean by this? I want to change the way we think about Autism and Asperger’s. And it starts with lemons.

Yes. Literally lemons. Lemons add flavor to our food and water. And I believe the spectrum adds flavor to humanity. Too much lemon can be a little bitter. And not enough won’t get the job done.

I use lemons to help people better understand Autism, Asperger’s and everything in between. Imagine a glass of water, lemon flavored water, lemonade, a lemon, and a lemon farm. This Lemon Continuum allows us to describe where a person is on the spectrum. This as an identity. Not a label or a disorder. My therapeutic work begins with self-acceptance and a celebration of one’s unique identity on the spectrum.

People with “lemon in the water” 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. I call this “Freight-Train Brain.”

Just as with superheroes, with strength comes difficulty. Think about this: if a mind is wired to do one or two things exceptionally well, and that mind is designed to do this for hours on end, why would socialization be emphasized when there are far more interesting things in which to engage?

And yet society continues to place social demands which include conformity on to people that live on the spectrum. Society values conformity and yet people on the spectrum will not conform. In my practice, I do not pursue such conformity, but I celebrate the special interests and I try to help them find their place in an at times overwhelming and confusing world. In working with children and teens, you will find special interests that include Minecraft, Pokémon, cosplay, and other special interests. Parents will often ask me, “How will he ever be able to live on his own?” Many people consider the Spectrum to be a disorder, or they hold a stereotype of these individuals as being introverted, weird, or dangerous. The stereotype could not be further from the truth. If you have met one Lemon, then you have met one Lemon. Just as there are many introverted and extroverted people who struggle with depression, attention, or anxiety, the same can be said of those who are on the Spectrum. Everyone is different. The joy for me in working with this population is seeing a marginalized child or family feel embraced and accepted. Many of my clients find their “Why” of life and come to a level of self-acceptance and discovery that they did not believe was possible. The cornerstone of working with a client on the spectrum is self-awareness and self-acceptance. A truly rewarding experience is the dad who says, “Wow, I was a lot like him when I was a kid. Maybe I’m on the spectrum too.” This therapeutic moment is exceptionally rewarding because as a mom or dad is able to recognize their place on the spectrum, it often alleviates years of battles with a son or daughter. The parent and child can now relate to one another and better recognize how they can work together.

Planning for the transition from high school to the next milestone in a teen’s life (college, work, gap year) is likely to be exciting and anxiety-provoking for both parent and child. Successful entry into young adulthood requires direction and intentionality for most individuals with ASD. Parents are often challenged with providing the right amount of guidance and support while encouraging your teen to be self-directed and an advocate for themselves when possible. The following tips are offered to assist parents in anticipating and navigating this important period in their child’s life.

  1. Don’t forget to celebrate your teen’s accomplishments that resulted in high school graduation! You’ve both worked really hard for this time.

  2. Remember that often young adults with social communication challenges are ready to be fully independent by 18 and are likely to need ongoing support from parents.

  3. Parents should base their expectations on teens’ abilities and emotional maturity not on chronological age or on what peers are doing.

  4. Start early teaching your child competencies such as being organized, completing work, following directions, accepting feedback, and taking responsibility for their homework. These are foundational skills for successful adulthood.

  5. Help your teen view mistakes or poor decisions as learning opportunities.

  6. Provide experiences during high school in potential post-school settings (part-time employment, job coach, residential camps, exploring recreation). This gives you and the teen important information about challenges and areas of success.

  7. Reinforce good hygiene, appropriate dress, healthy nutrition, exercise, and sleep habits.

  8. Help your teen learn life skills such as cooking, shopping, and handling personal finances.

  9. Throughout high school have conversations about future plans. Listen to his/her thoughts about careers and life as an adult.

  10. Support your teen in pursuing volunteer positions, job shadowing, and other opportunities that expose them to real work settings.

  11. Continue to work on social and emotional skills as opportunities present within family relationships.

  12. Actively participate in transition planning if your child is in public school and has an IEP. If this is not part of the teen’s education program create your own utilizing transition planning resources or consult an educational specialist.

  13. If your teen plans to apply to college, start researching schools that may be a good fit and provide needed supports. Start this process early in their junior year.

  14. If appropriate for your teen, learn about adult services and eligibility requirements for individuals with a diagnosed disability before they turn 18 (Vocational Rehab, student services for college 504 plans or other support services, SSI).

  15. Determine if you and your young adult need legal consultation related to guardianship or power of attorney for healthcare or finance.

Here are 6 ways to find and maintain balance

  1. Consider where you fall on the assertiveness continuum. Are you more prone to be too passive or too aggressive?

  2. Assertiveness starts with good body language such as appropriate eye contact.

  3. Good eye contact is like social punctuation: Capitalizing the beginning of the sentence with visual attention, looking back to add emphasis, as the use of a comma, and looking again to end sentence as in a period.

  4. Consider other aspects of assertive body language such as tone of voice, the volume of speech, posture, physical distance, and facial expression. Ask yourself if you need to increase or decrease your engagement within each. Remember to respect others while also respecting yourself.

  5. Shared engagement in social interaction is the goal. Ask yourself who is leading the conversation most?

  6. Assertiveness also involves assertive listening. Respecting others with our noticeable attention- using nods or verbal signals.

How to use natural interests to get folks connected and engaged.

Did you know that roughly 90 percent of aspies have a special interest area (SIAs)? When practiced productively, SIAs are what allow aspies to excel in their field making them the best game designer, software engineers, or history professors. But, without guidance, these areas can be unproductive, restrictive, and pervasive. One example is the aspie who struggles to maintain relationships or complete homework because they’re enveloped in their Minecraft server. One of my main focuses for my aspie clients is to help them turn these passions into a strength, and eventually, a successful career! Here are a few suggestions on how to help your aspie(s) capitalize on their SIA.

  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 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, LEGOs, and tabletop games (e.g., Dungeons and Dragons) as a way to improve social skill development and provide my kiddos with a great environment to practice them and make friends!

  3. Emotions and Coping The more Aspies positively engage in SIAs, the more likely they will have positive emotions. Additionally, SIAs can help Aspies cope with negative emotions, reduce anxiety and disrupt unwanted behaviors.

  4. Skill Development Aspies 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. Similarly, SIAs help Aspies persist through tasks that challenge the sensitivity of senses (e.g., sticky glue and bad smells when building a model plane)

  5. .School Performance Integrating SIAs into schoolwork can improve motivation, behavior, and academic skill development They can also foster the development of a successful career path. Like Temple Grandin and her interest in livestock, many Aspies pursue successful careers related to their SIA.

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