A brief note on the terminology used in this article: While people should practice sensitivity towards various opinions, many adults on the autism spectrum have disclosed the preference of identity-first language over person-first language (Botha et al., 2020). Thus, identity-first language, such as “autistic individual” will be interchangeably used with “individual with autism” throughout this article (Botha et al., 2020).
Winter-Messiers et al. (2007) found that 90% of people with Asperger’s syndrome display special interests, which is so prevalent that it cannot be neglected in research and practice. Special interests are defined as various iterations of the same concept: “obsessions” (Klin et al., 2007, p. 90), “an intense focus on specific topics” (Jordan & Caldwell-Harris, 2012, p. 391), and more positively, “those passions that capture the mind, heart, time, and attention…providing the lens through which they view the world” (Winter-Messiers, 2007, p. 142). The topic of exploring engagement in special interest’s influence on well-being is important because individuals on the spectrum are at a higher risk than neurotypical individuals for poor mental health outcomes (Teti et al., 2016), including increased rates of depression and anxiety (Robertson, 2009). Autistic individuals also have lower well-being and fewer positive emotions (Lord et al., 2020). Providing avenues for meaningful engagement and improved well-being of individuals on the spectrum is a serious imperative of practitioners and researchers.
Literature has shown that positive participation in special interests influences well-being of individuals on the spectrum. Many articles found that positive socialization around special interests combats depression and anxiety and provides avenues for increased well-being through social participation. Furthermore, the special interests have been described as avenues to build careers and provided employment opportunities. It has also been evident from literature that knowledge development around special interests influences well-being of individuals on the spectrum. An article by Lee et al. (2020) found in their special interests program that the students improved their coding skills, and this opportunity for skill development had a significant part in improving their well-being. Finally, literature has shown that increased confidence around special interests influenced well-being of individuals on the spectrum. In Winter-Messiers et al. (2007), the identified special interests had positive implications for home, school, and as future job opportunities. The youth said that their special interests were not just a fleeting curiosity, but they “defined who they are” (Winter-Messiers et al., 2007, p. 77). Similarly, in an article by Jordan and Caldwell-Harris which analyzed data through internet discussion forums, the autistic individuals noted that they drew their self-worth from their special interests, similarly stating that the interests “define [them]” (2012, p. 400).
Formation of identity around special interests is what builds confidence, much like an adolescent who is part of a sports team: they refer to themselves with identity-first language i.e. “basketball players.” Furthermore, this shared identity provides a sense of belonging, a feeling that many individuals with autism have unfortunately lacked. Belonging to a group with a shared identity is a potent tool to improving well-being; special interests can aid in the acquisition of that tool. Engagement in special interests clearly produces positive participation and engagement, increased social skills, learning opportunities, and identity formation. Furthermore, the special interests were described as avenues to build careers and provided employment opportunities, looking to ways that engagement in special interests can be helpful long-term rather than as a temporally constrained characteristic (Jordan & Caldwell-Harris, 2012).
The power of the neurodiverse individual arguably lies in these special interests – their special interests help them to cultivate strengths such as attention to detail and reliability. These strengths can then translate to job-related skills, such as the requirements of charting for a mental health technician. When therapists, researchers, and employers alike are able to see special interests as avenues for meaningful engagement and successful participation in job tasks, they better serve and reap the strengths of neurodiverse individuals.
Sharon Eva is a pediatric occupational therapist currently working in Waco, Texas. She is passionate about serving the neurodiverse population and is pursuing her PhD in occupational therapy at Nova Southeastern University. Please feel free to contact her with any questions or comments at: Sharonrachelthomas@gmail.com
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