Helping your child with autism build age-appropriate interests

Lisa Jo Rudy

Most typical children have a built-in motivation to find a social group and fit in. To do this successfully, they watch their peers and imitate their behavior. If the kids around them disdain Curious George and are now into Harry Potter, they will follow suit. Clothes chosen by Mom are replaced with cool clothes approved by peers. A typical 16-year-old would no more watch Thomas the Tank Engine than fly to the moon -- not necessarily because he doesn't LIKE Thomas, but because he would be scorned by his friends.

This need to fit comes with great benefits -- and great challenges. A teen's desire to fit in can lead to successful socialization, and a good understanding of what it means to be an adult in our society. On the other hand, of course, it can lead to truancy, drugs, unsafe sex, and a whole raft of other issues.

While some young people with autism really do share the need to fit in, however, most don't. The motivating force that drives other people to behave in "age appropriate" ways (or "keep up with the Joneses") just doesn't exist. As a result, tweens and teens with autism often stick with the tried and true activities, TV programs, movies, books, and toys that they've always loved. After all, if it's something you love, what possible reason could there be for giving it up?

The reality is that there is no really solid reason why anyone should give up something they love, provided that they're doing no harm to themselves or others. But there are a few reasons why moving on to more age-appropriate interests (in addition to old loves) is worthwhile:

-- Kids with autism can become obsessive about their special interests, and, as a result, may find it difficult to focus on anything other than that interest. This, of course, makes it hard to learn at school or engage with other people.

-- Parents, siblings, and peers are socialized to feel that an adult or teen who is interested in childish things is uncool and weird. This can lead to negative interactions with family and schoolmates. The unfair reality is that people who are well-socialized are likely to get more opportunities and more positive responses from the people around them.

-- The world is a very big place, and young people with autism often self-limit their exposure. Gentle, consistent exposure to new programs, games, activities, places, and people may open new doors for people on the spectrum.

While it is possible to simply take away all those Thomas videos or confiscate every Disney toy once a child with autism turns 8 or 10, though, there are better ways to manage difficulties with age-inappropriate interests.

-- Help your child to think about his existing interests in more sophisticated ways. Rather than just watching Thomas the Tank Engine, for example, talk about the characters' motivations and actions. What do they think of Sir Topham Hatt's rather draconian response to misbehavior? Which characters are kind, proud, mean, etc.?

-- Help your child to turn their existing interests into more sophisticated activities. A child who loves Legos, for example, can tap into a whole world of adult opportunities for modeling, creating interactive robots, sculpting, and more. A child who loves Thomas may enjoy visiting or creating real railroads or model railways.

-- Help your child to choose high quality interests. Not every children's show, book, or movie is created equal, and while some are crap, others are classics. Consider using videos like Scholastic's library or PBS's Between the Lions to build your child's appreciation for the good stuff. Pick and choose the "good stuff" from the Disney universe -- after all, Disney won Academy Awards for those "childish" animations.

-- Work with your child to find groups who appreciate his interests. Yes, indeed, there are mainstream teen and adult groups and clubs dedicated to things like comic book heroes, Legos, Disney collectibles, and model railways. Rather than denying your child's interests, help to build on them.

-- Add related, more age-appropriate activities to your child's life. If he really loves Sesame Street -- created for children -- he may love the Muppets -- which were created for viewers of all ages. If she's a big fan of Disney animation, she may enjoy more sophisticated Manga or even shows like "The Simpsons."

Bear in mind that your child's interests, while they may seem silly to you, are extremely important to your child. They may be the tool that helps them calm down after a tough day -- or the only part of their world that is predictable. Your job is not to force them into a different world every time they get a little older -- but, rather, to provide new ways to expand and explore their interests.

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