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Understanding Special Interests: A Guide for Parents of Children with Autism

As parents of autistic children, navigating the unique behaviors and interests of our loved ones can sometimes feel like decoding a puzzle. One such aspect that holds significant importance is understanding their special interests. These interests, often intense and consuming, can provide profound insights into our children's world and play a crucial role in their development and well-being. In this blog, we explore the concept of special interests and why grasping their significance is essential for supporting our children on the spectrum.


Understanding Special Interests 

Special interests are intense and focused interests or hobbies that individuals pursue voluntarily and with enthusiasm. They often bring joy, satisfaction, and a sense of accomplishment to the individual. They can serve as coping mechanisms, providing comfort and predictability in a world that may feel overwhelming.

Special Interests are generally charactered by a few key traits: 

  • Intense and focused: Individuals with autism display a high level of concentration and dedication to their interests.
  • Dominant in thoughts and activities: These interests often become central aspects of their lives, occupying much of their time and attention.


Common vs. Specific Special Interests

Examples of common topics of special interests:

  • Dinosaurs: Some children develop a special interest in dinosaurs. They may spend hours reading books, watching documentaries, or playing with dinosaur toys. This special interest may lead to a deep understanding of different dinosaur species, their characteristics, and their habitats. The child may enjoy sharing their knowledge with others and may feel a sense of pride and accomplishment in their expertise.
  • Trains: Some have a special interest in trains. They may memorize train schedules, collect model trains, or enjoy watching videos of trains in motion. This special interest may provide the child with a sense of comfort and predictability, and they may find joy in learning about different types of trains, train routes, and railway systems.
  • Music: Another example of a special interest can be listening to music or playing musical instruments. The child may have a deep passion for music, including singing, playing instruments, or listening to various genres of music. They may have an excellent memory for song lyrics or musical compositions and may express themselves through music in ways that they struggle to do verbally. This special interest in music may provide the child with a sense of joy, relaxation, and self-expression.

Examples of specificity in special interests:

  • Movies or TV Shows: While some children may enjoy a broad range of movies or TV shows, others might fixate on a particular franchise, series, or character. They may memorize dialogue, analyze plot intricacies, or even reenact scenes related to this interest.
  • Historical Events: Within the broad scope of history, a child might have a keen interest in a specific era, such as ancient civilization, World War II, or the space race. They may delve deep into researching related historical figures, events, artifacts, or even participating in historical reenactments.
  • Playing House: Children who have an interest in playing dolls may demonstrate rigidity in setting up their doll houses. This could look like spending hours systematically placing furniture[BK1] [PT2]  and household items in specific places that they do not want moved and become upset if someone touches or re-arranges the house. They may like their dolls to wear certain colors or specific clothes or want the doll’s hair in a certain style.


Benefits of Embracing Special Interests 

Recognizing and embracing the multitude of benefits associated with special interests empowers parents and caregivers to support their children's holistic development and well-being. 

Enhancing Motivation and Engagement

  • Special interests serve as powerful motivators, driving children actively explore and engage with their environment.
  • Allowing the child to incorporate their interests into tasks can be helpful. For example, you can brush a dinosaur’s teeth, then their own. By tapping into these interests, parents and caregivers can encourage their children’s participation in various activities and learning experiences.[MM3] [MM4] 

Building Skills and Expertise

  • Immersion in special interests often leads to the acquisition of specialized knowledge and skills.
  • Autistic children may demonstrate remarkable proficiency in their areas of fascination, paving the way for potential career paths or academic pursuits in the future.

Providing Comfort and Reducing Anxiety

  • Special interests offer a sense of predictability and familiarity in a world that may otherwise feel chaotic and overwhelming for them.
  • Engaging with their interests can serve as a coping mechanism, helping to alleviate anxiety and provide a comforting retreat during times of stress.

Self-Expression and Identity

  • Special interests play a significant role in shaping the unique identities of individuals with autism.
  • Through their interests, children can express themselves authentically, showcasing their passions, preferences, and perspectives to the world.


5 Practical Strategies for Parents

Parents of children who exhibit special interests want to support their child's development.

Here are 5 strategies to empower parents to support their child's development while embracing and respecting their unique interests.

1. Recognizing and Acknowledging Your Child’s Special Interests

  • Take note of your child's recurring special interests, acknowledging their significance in their life.
  • Validate your child's interests by showing genuine interest and curiosity, fostering a sense of acceptance, and understanding. Special interests can be a wonderful way to connect with your child!

2. Incorporating Interests into Daily Routines and Activities:

  • Integrate your child's interests into everyday activities, such as incorporating themes into playtime, meals, or outings.
  • By incorporating their interests, you provide opportunities for engagement and skill-building within familiar contexts.

3. Balancing Indulgence with Setting Limits

  • Establish clear boundaries regarding the time and place for indulging in special interests, promoting a balanced approach to their engagement.
  • Setting expectations helps your child understand when it is appropriate to explore their interests and when they need to focus on other responsibilities.

4. Supporting Social Skills Development while Respecting Interests

  • Encourage social interactions related to your child's interests, such as joining clubs or groups with similar passions.
  • Provide gentle guidance on navigating social situations while respecting your child's comfort level and boundaries.

5. Seeking Professional Guidance When Necessary

  • Consult with professionals, such as therapists or educators, for personalized strategies and interventions tailored to your child's needs.
  • Professional guidance can offer valuable insights and support in addressing any challenges related to your child's special interests.

Addressing Challenges Associated with Special Interests 

Navigating the complexities of special interests often comes with its own set of challenges. Here are some practical approaches to address these challenges and ensure a balanced approach to supporting your child's well-being.

Supporting Flexibility and Adaptation

  • Foster flexibility by gradually introducing new interests or activities while maintaining the integrity of existing ones.
  • Understand that special interests may wax, wane, or change over time for a variety of reasons.
  • Encourage adaptability by teaching coping strategies for transitions or changes in routines.

Addressing Social Stigma and Misconceptions

  • Educate others about the positive aspects of special interests and challenge misconceptions surrounding them.
  • Advocate for acceptance and understanding within your child's social circles and community.
  • Children may notice that their interests or the intensity of their interests are not shared by their peers. Let your child know their special interests are important, while also acknowledging their feelings about peer interactions (e.g., isolation). It may be helpful to explore a variety of options for connecting with peers (e.g., other interests or activities they could bond over).

Strategies for Addressing Special Interests that May be Harmful or Limiting

  • Seek professional guidance to address special interests that may pose risks to your child's well-being or hinder their development.
  • Implement strategies to broaden your child's interests and introduce healthier alternatives.

Finding Community and Support Resources

  • Connect with other parents and caregivers who understand the unique challenges associated with special interests.
  • Explore community organizations, support groups, or online forums to find resources and guidance tailored to your needs.


By supporting and encouraging our children's unique interests, we learn more about them and help them grow. Together, we can ensure that every child feels valued, supported, and encouraged to thrive.


AZA United's Family Support Team provides support and guidance for families facing any number of challenges as they navigate the autism journey. This service is available at no charge to all members of the autism and developmental disability community. You may make a phone appointment that works with your schedule by visiting




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