Dinosaurs 24/7: Understanding The Special Interests of Children with Asperger's Syndrome - Part 3
Mary Ann Winter-Messiers, Maitrise (Universite de Paris-IV, La Sorbonne)
What Did We Learn?
We organized our findings into the following areas: (a) categories of SIAs, (b) the fusion of SIAs and identity, (c) gender differences in SIAs, (d) parents' knowledge about and feelings towards SIAs, (e) peers' perceptions of SIAs and how those perceptions negatively affect children and youth with Asperger's, and (f) the impact of SIAs on classic Asperger's deficits.
Categories of SIAs
In the limited research concerning the special interests of individuals with Asperger's, Attwood, 12 Gillberg, 13 and Myles and Adreon 14 all noted that special interests vary widely. We found this in our research also. We identified 22 SIAs which we categorized into eight interest themes. These included classic SIAs as well as unusual ones. The eight themes were transportation, music, animals, sports, video games, motion pictures, woodworking, and art. Table 1 lists the SIAs of all participants.
Note: Although N=23 in our study, the interests
Although 7 of the boys in our study identified video games as their SIA, further analysis of the interviews revealed that often the boys hid their true SIAs in order to gain social acceptance from their peers. Participants often used video games or other popular interests as a social bridge, even if these interests were not their true SIAs. We labeled this practice the masking of special interests because we found that participants used this technique to hide perceived socially unacceptable SIAs from their peers while still interacting with them. For example, Tom said that video games were his SIA, but later revealed his passion for woodworking. 15 Peter revealed his masking process when he told us, "Uh, I'm a gamer, uh, but my favorite video game, the only one I am actually good at, would be First Person Shooters...But the truth is, I like frogs...frogsfrogsfrogsfrogs! I have, like, so many frogs at both my mom and dad's houses and I'm not going to ever sell them or give them away or stuff like that. If I was going to sell them, which I'm not, I'd be rich! Really, really, RICH!" 16
The Fusion of SIAs and Identity
It was clear from our data that participants' positive self-images were inextricably woven into their SIAs. The participants strongly identified with their SIAs and saw themselves defined by their SIAs. SIAs are critically important to children and youth with Asperger's. Though participants' self-images apart from their SIAs were strongly negative, we found that when they were involved in activities related to their SIAs, they felt more positive about themselves. They demonstrated expertise in their SIAs, control over their knowledge and involvement in their SIAs, and increased self-confidence. One participant, Ryan, confided, "I think I've got a lot more understanding on how things work than most people. I've got a corner in the back of my brain that allows me to perfectly simulate almost anything." 17 Steve told us, "I'm the main customer at a place called Hollywood Video. I am a movie whiz!" 18
Gender Differences in SIAs
Our female participants validated the research of Cohen 19 on the interests of girls with Asperger's in which she found that the most popular interests among her participants were art, primarily drawing and cartooning, and animals. The interests of the two girls in our study were manga and horses. Sarah, one of the two girls in our study, firmly stated "I'm an animal person. [People] can sense that I am an animal person." 20
Parents' Knowledge of and Feelings Toward SIAs
Most parents who completed a survey were very aware of their children's SIAs, and were able to correctly identify them. Parents saw the purpose of SIAs as having fun, relaxing, avoiding doing another task, avoiding thinking about something else, calming down, and reducing stress or anxiety. Parents acknowledged their children's expertise in their SIAs. Nearly all the parents surveyed correctly identified their children's SIAs. Most children and youth participants reported that their interactions with their parents concerning their SIAs were positive.
Parents' primary concerns regarding their children's SIAs were that they were socially unacceptable, not age-appropriate, and would not lead to college or careers. A grandmother lamented "once he is 'IN' a game -- there is no further participation with life in general...he rambles on and on about what he cares about, or things [about] himself.... No interest shown in others." 21 One parent shared, "[His SIA] keeps him from learning new possibilities." 22 One boy's mother also expressed her concern for his future. "Can he really do this as a career?" 23 Sixteen of the 18 parent respondents said that they regularly interpreted their children's SIAs for family, friends, and teachers, explaining why their children were so involved in their SIAs. Fourteen parents stated that their children's SIAs had a positive impact on their families.
Parents expressed a wide range of emotions concerning their children's SIAs. These included the five most common positive feelings in our survey data: pride, humor, fascination, pleasure, and enthusiasm. For example, Brock's mother stated, "My son inspires my respect and admiration for all he knows and his amazing brain." 24 Marcus's mother affirmed, "It's part of what makes him special!" 25 Justin's grandmother wrote, "I'm glad to see if Justin has an interest he can go far with. If he chooses a scientific study he could be a genius." 26
Parents also experienced negative emotions about their children's SIAs. The three most common were boredom, frustration, and embarrassment. Justin's grandmother expressed her weariness with Justin's SIA when she wrote simply, "This world is all about Justin." 27 One parent expressed her frustration, writing "It's tiring for others to listen to [him talk about his SIA] after awhile; it's limiting for him, too." 28 Another parent agreed. "It's obsessive and gets old," she wrote. 29
Some children and youth expressed frustration with their parents, too. Peter confided, "My Dad...did not really accept that I am, um, a gamer." When asked what he thought his parents thought his SIA was, he replied, "I don't think they've really got a clue. They'd probably think the video games 'cause they're always tellin' me to get off my butt and go do somethin'." 30
Peers' Perceptions of SIAs
Participants expressed reluctance to tell others about their SIAs due to rejection from their peers. Participants also noted that they were frustrated at being misunderstood by others. Their SIAs were often seen as socially unacceptable, and their peers lacked understanding and interest in the participants' SIAs. Charlie wanted to clarify, "I also make dragons, not just dinosaurs, everyone needs to know what they are....dragons, Dragons, DRAGONS!" 31 Brock admitted, "I just wish they'd think planes were cool." 32
Brock also revealed his feeling of peer rejection, as well as his desire to be the expert, when he told one interviewer, "I wish [kids at school] would accept planes and, uh, not always pretend to throw up about it...I just wish they knew as much about it as I do, maybe even ... no, maybe not even more." 33
Participants clearly wanted to be recognized as experts, and accepted by their peers. "Well I first like tell 'em I'm talented, but then I like wanna prove, I mean PROVE, that I can do it." 34 Another participant stated, "Yeah...wulll...apparently, like, when I make something very good, then they'll be impressed." 35
Many participants, such as Brock, revealed social awareness in their cautious dealings with peers, testing the waters before revealing their SIAs. "First, I usually don't talk about it... and if I have a really good friend... they might come over to my house and then they'll see all these planes around and they'll tell me that planes are a really cool thing... and then I'll know." 36 Justin told us, "Video games used to be at the top of my list. Now I always put girls at the top of my list. If it's a girl, I'll hang back, observe, see what kinda things she likes and I'll move in slow and steady. One could say that I like to buy lunch for pretty girls." 37
Owen was willing to be flexible in talking with peers, saying "If they don't look interested I change the subject. I say, 'Hey, I can change my voice.'" 38 Steve, however, had learned self-preservation by backing off when teased by peers. "I don't really wish other people would know about it." 39 Charlie confided, "They wouldn't, like, care anyway." 40
The Impact of SIAs on Classic Asperger's Deficits
We discovered that SIAs had some very positive effects on some of the classic deficits of children and youth with Asperger's. Traditionally, children and youth with Asperger's exhibit deficits in the areas of language, social communication, emotions, and problems with sensory stimuli and fine motor activities. However, we found that these deficits were diminished when participants were engaged in their SIAs. 41
As we interviewed participants and later listened to the taped interviews, we noticed distinct changes in the participants' speech whenever they talked about their SIAs. Some participants began to show significantly more enthusiasm and emotion when asked about their SIAs. In some participants, we noted that their speech was much clearer and they used more advanced vocabulary when talking about their SIAs. For example, when responding to general questions, Charlie repeatedly gave answers such as "Uh, I don't think so, I just, whatever," consisting of simple one or two syllable words with no clear content. When asked about his favorite thing to play with, however, his speech pattern changed instantly as he confidently replied, "My favorite is a Yu-Gi-Oh™ card that combines with three Blue-Eyed White Dragons, and due to polymerization it forms those three into a three-headed dragon." 42
Our team also observed improvement in body language, particularly an increase in eye contact and expressive gestures that accompanied speech. Further, we noticed a remarkable decrease in self-stimulation, distraction, and body movement in and around the tables and the participants' chairs.
All of our participants enthusiastically talked at length about their SIAs. The participants noted that they saw nothing unusual or extraordinary about their SIAs. Participants shared that they felt positive emotions when actively engaged in their SIAs, including enthusiasm, pride, and happiness. Danny could barely contain his joy in repeatedly telling the interviewers, "I was born to like...Walt Disney. Walt Disney is my life. Disney has been my most happiest hope in my whole life." 43 Nate, whose SIA was musical composition, proudly told the interviewers, "My parents think I'm an unbelievable, amazing drummer." 44 Convinced of his successful future in composing music scores for film, Nate confidently declared, "The reason I wanna move back there [to Hollywood] is, I wanna be a composer and, and just take over John William's job, get into that job, and compose Harry Potter, The Terminal...just, before I do that, I have to learn the notes". Nate described how the music made him feel. "I like composing music for movies so that I have a good feeling...I like feeling sad, happy, scared, sneaky." 45
Individuals with Asperger's often find intense smells, loud sounds, or personal touch highly unpleasant. 46 Rising to these sensory challenges, our participants persevered for hours at a time when involved in their SIAs in spite of intense stimulation from model airplane glue, modeling clay, horse manure, goat odors, sawdust, sweat, sticky or dirty hands, and the bright lights, rapid movements, and loud, startling sounds of video games.
Though children and youth with Asperger's typically have acknowledged difficulties in tying shoelaces, fastening buttons, and handwriting, 47,48 our participants spoke not only of their advanced fine motor skills, but of extreme perseverance and patience in the fine motor skills that their SIAs required such as drawing, building, sculpting, creating models, playing keyboards, using video controllers, and playing musical instruments.
SIAs clearly serve a very positive purpose for children and youth with Asperger's. SIAs are vital to their well being; they are viewed by children and youth not as a hobby or leisure activity or interest, but as an integral part of who they are. In their special interest, these children and youth acquire clear focus, a way to organize the world, a social approach, and a way to interpret life. SIAs are not taken lightly by children and youth with Asperger's, and neither should they be taken lightly by parents and teachers.
Continues in Section 4:
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