Children diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum Disorder, are often obsessive about particular areas of interest. These obsessions can range from computers, science, art, insects, dinosaurs, or a myriad of other subjects. Whilst this sounds wonderful, many obsessions can be hard to understand or comprehend. I receive many emails from many parents who are at their wits end with their child as their obsessions often dominate above all else.
In the past, many experts have suggested trying to balance the obsession, so that children on the spectrum don’t become to singularly focused. However, after years of raising a child on the spectrum, I have come to realise that instead of trying to ‘balance’ the obsession, what we must do is discover the mastery within the obsession and develop ways in which children on the spectrum can learn through it.
There have been thousands of people throughout history, who through their obsession and drive to understand how to work a machine, or understand the lifestyle of a certain threatened species, or desire to make something work the way it hasn’t before, has changed the way we do things. Let’s face it you have to be slightly ASD to develop some of the life changing innovations of our times. Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Henry Ford and now the creator of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg, have all had the word Asperger’s connected to their names and have been involved in developing many of the inventions in our lives that we now take for granted.
In order to achieve success in any area, you need drive and determination and obsession, but for some reason, obsession and ASD are treated as if there is something wrong.
To achieve success in a given sport, professional athletes train for hours to perfect a particular shot or a particular move in their game. There are literally thousands of stories of children who show aptitude in a particular sport, are placed in sports excellence programs and go on to achieve enormous success. They have coaches, mentors and advisers who are focused entirely on that child’s development. Why is it then that we do not give the same emphasis for an ASD child whose obsessions may also lead to mastery?
In order to help our ASD children explore their gift, I believe it is the role of parents and teachers to find the learning within the obsession. For instance, if your child is obsessed with trains – there are all sorts of ways that you can use it to create learning… maths – which could include timetables, predicting speeds or learning about weight vs speed ratios; social sciences – the impact on train travel for outlying communities; history – how trains have been used over the centuries; english – there are all sorts of books about trains and train travel that open up the world of reading for a child. You have no idea where their obsession will take them but perhaps your child is the one that will improve train travel for millions of people throughout the world.
We always thought that our son’s interests would be in the area of computers as he was fascinated with technology from the time he was two years old, and so when he left school at 15 he studied computer technology. It wasn’t until he got much older that he realised, although he liked computers, he didn’t enjoy programming. Instead he enjoys the ability to use computers in the areas of video and sound editing. He also has a heightened sensitivity to sound, which in the early days caused quite a few issues for him, but now is perfect for the area of his expertise.
When he was younger, teachers were really concerned because he wouldn’t read certain books on the curriculum reading list. But if you put a series of books in front of him he liked – such as Animorphs, the Power Rangers or Thomas the Tank Engine, he would sit up all night reading them.
A few nights ago we went out for dinner. We sat for hours talking about all sorts of subjects, and I have to say I was amazed by the breadth of knowledge my son had about many current events. He is a great reader now, very interested in politics and world events, the status of refugees and the environment. He became a good reader because he read books that interested him, not because he had to struggle to read books others thought he should! Isn’t the reason we want children to read is to learn ‘how’ to read? The ‘what’ is really irrelevant.
Every single child in the world has a gift in a particular area, but very often educators will not bend the curriculum to appreciate and value those gifts if they sit outside the academic requirements. And whose fault is that? It certainly is not up to the ASD child to conform. After all – is it not up to the schools to encourage the gifts our children have and not try to dumb them down because they will not fit into a system that has been designed for the majority?
If we do not allow these children with ASD to explore their obsessions and learn through them… are we at risk of our society losing out? Will we become a world of people who only value intelligence as demonstrated by those who conform to schooling and have trained themselves to do well in tests?
How many times have you heard stories about people who have not done well at school, but have gone on in their lives to achieve extraordinary success? Children diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome are perfect example of this, and when our school system figures this out – the world will be much better off.