Autism and Asperger Articles, Bill Stillman, Award-Winning Author

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Demystifying Autism From The Inside Out

Identifying Areas of Passion in Very Young Children and Individuals Without Speech

By William Stillman

I have long advocated the importance of valuing the passions of persons on the autism spectrum; it’s been a theme throughout books and journal articles I’ve composed for many years. Passions (or special interests) are topics or subject areas that hold great intrigue and spark creative expression in us all. Some common passions of individuals with autism include dinosaurs, animation, history, specific movies, astronomy, trains, insects, and airplanes to name a few. For the person with autism, passions may be a bridge to enhancing relationships, decoding mystifying educational curriculum, or developing a viable vocation. Such individuals oftentimes possess encyclopedic knowledge pertaining to their special interests, or can lend insights unique to the autistic way of thinking when it comes time to problem-solve. For those fortunate to hold dear a passion that is not mislabeled as an “obsession,” social acceptance may by acknowledged by virtue of their place in the community and the manner in which they are revered for what it is they have to offer.

But what of the very young child with autism or the person who does not speak? It is often difficult to discern areas of special interest in these individuals, but that does not mean they are without passions; it may require, however, a keen eye and an attention to detail. In my opinion and in my experience, the following five categories, singularly or in combination, are the most likely areas of passionate interest for very young children or those who are non-verbal.

Let’s examine each area in-depth in order to provide detailed aspects that may aid parents and caregivers.

  1. Nature. This area of passion manifests in an individual’s desire for all things green and aquatic. Trees, flowers, and shrubs and creeks, streams, and ponds may hold endless fascination. The individual may collect artifacts related to time spent outdoors such as pinecones, rocks, and small plants. The individual may also seem to have a great respect and appreciation for the time he spends immersed in nature. This passion could be encouraged through activities learning about plant life, trees and photosynthesis, decomposition, growing various plants, understanding trajectory of various rivers, or pollination.
  2. Animals. Curiously, dogs and cats—household pets—are not necessarily a foremost interest in this category. Oftentimes, farm animals, horses, or wild animals are a focal point. Dogs can be unpredictable and may bark unexpectedly; but others can be loyal companions. Time spent interacting with, sleeping with or grooming and caring for dogs may occur. Attention from an animal may be unsolicited, and some animals (including wild animals) may be drawn to the individual with autism. Reptiles, insects, and fish are included in this category. Be attentive to time spent watching nature programs on television, and pouring over photographs in nature magazines. This passion may be encouraged through learning about animal anatomy, animals indigenous to other countries, understanding animal diet, evolution, and food chains, visits to zoos and habitats, or even reproduction.
  3. Music. Music may be likened to “life blood” for countless persons on the autism spectrum. Look for individuals being drawn to specific musical artists or genres of music, or, oftentimes, certain lyrics. Those who do not speak may employ musical lyrics in ways that are symbolic and representative of their own voice. This practice may convey thoughts, feelings, and emotions depending upon when, where and with whom the particular music is shared. Music may also be employed to calm, quell and soothe. Ensure that an individual has access to their music; it is a misnomer to believe that music is not important to persons with autism. In the times this has been speculated, it has been determined that the individual was exposed to someone else’s music or that music was played at too high a volume. This passion may be encouraged through singing and vocalizing, playing a musical instrument, communicating moods and emotions, moving, dancing and exercising, or musical composition.
  4. Family. Notice how the person with autism endeavors to unite the family, particularly a family under duress or enduring marital tension. The individual may be at their finest when families are gathered together for holidays and reunions, or may celebrate family excursions or vacations. Keeping the family focused on maintaining loving ties appears to be the motivation. Grandparents hold a unique position for having specially-bonding relationships with the person with autism. You may notice that the person is attracted to information or photographs of ancestors. It may also be that a child with autism is drawn to the parent who appears distant and detached, or is one struggling with addictions or issues of mental wellness. This passion may be encouraged through maintaining and preserving scrapbooks and photo albums, pursuing family genealogy, researching opportunities for family trips and vacations, or communicating with relatives through e-mail, postal mail, phone calls and gift exchanges.
  5. Religion/spirituality. This passion is most likely to be exhibited in families that are non-denominational or void of any particular religious beliefs. The individual may have profound religious or spiritual understanding, and may demonstrate this through their words or actions. The individual may insist that the family enact religious rituals, such as prayer before mealtime or at bedtime; or begin attending religious service. An attraction to religious television programs or religious artifacts may be noted. This passion may be encouraged by supporting a family to identify their spiritual values and determining how their child’s activities fit within that framework. Opportunities to reflect upon how autism has impacted or positively influenced the lives of all family members may be relevant. Supporters may also identify positive aspects of family resiliency and perseverance that includes the individual with autism.

© 2008, William Stillman

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