By Jessie Pappagianopoulos, MA

Is there a topic that you could read or talk about for hours on end? Do you have a specific area of interest in which you would confidently dominate anyone who challenged you in trivia? If you answered yes to either of these questions, you may possess a special interest. Sometimes referred to as “restricted” or “circumscribed” interests in clinical or research settings, we at MGH Aspire value and celebrate one’s special interests. These interests, which involve a focused passion on a narrow topic, may be a love of dogs and learning about different dog breeds, a keen interest in Harry Potter, an affinity for dinosaurs – the list goes on! Neurotypical individuals may have topics of interest that they are very passionate about, but for individuals on the autism spectrum, there may be an increase in the intensity of the interest. When leveraged, special interests, sometimes known as “affinities,” can be beneficial in reducing feelings of stress and increasing social engagement with peers.

How Special Interests Are Valued at MGH Aspire

In addition to conventional social skills groups, MGH Aspire offers various groups (and special events) centered on specific special interests that our participants have shared with us. These include cooking groups, gaming groups and events (e.g., role-playing fantasy games, board and card games, and Magic: The Gathering), anime, art, film, engineering, cos-play, and more! During teen and adult intake interviews, one of the first questions that we ask our prospective participants is, “What are your interests, passions, or hobbies?” Typically, an adolescent, skeptical of joining a social group or feeling overwhelmed with the stress of meeting unfamiliar adults, will gradually open up as we spend a few minutes exhibiting genuine curiosity in their interests and appreciation for the topics they discuss. This supports us in quickly building rapport and trust, such that we can better come to know their true selves. Similarly, we ask all staff to share their special interest as an icebreaker on the first day of teen programming summer staff training. Observing others show interest in their passions and connecting over shared interests quickly starts building a sense of community and cohesion among the staff team.

How We Leverage Special Interests in the Everyday at MGH Aspire

Once we discover the special interest of a participant, we look for ways to tap into this interest and capitalize on it to best support growth and development. This manifests in a variety of ways during MGH Aspire camps and groups.

Demonstrate the Value of the Special Interest

Displaying authentic curiosity in the special interest of a participant will go a long way in building a therapeutic relationship. This may be spending personal time watching certain movies, reading books, or playing new games to build your own knowledge base on a certain topic. (During my first summer as a group leader, I watched many Marvel movies and played a great deal of “Pokemon Go”!) This may also mean transparently stating that you don’t know much about the topic, but you are interested in learning more from them – validate their expertise in the area! During this past summer in our Charlestown Explorations Program, we posted pictures of the participants’ and staff members’ special interests on the wall – seeing something they were passionate about everyday as they walked into their group room was stress-reducing and exciting; it also incited great conversation among the participants (e.g., “I saw Sonic was up there – who chose that one? I also love Sonic!”).

Tailor Teaching, Curriculum, or Visuals

Tailoring lessons about stress management, self-awareness, and social competency skills to integrate topics of interest can increase engagement, while boosting learning and the ability to generalize. For example, embedding Spongebob characters into a comic strip worksheet during a lesson about small talk was monumental in engaging an adolescent participant who was previously disinterested. Supporting a teen in identifying and talking about their feelings in the moment was much more successful when incorporating a visual with Marvel characters (e.g., “Do you feel like you are starting to get very angry like The Hulk and you might need to take a quiet break? Or, are you feeling anxious and a little excited like The Flash and a movement break might be helpful?”). During this past summer, we designed a self-awareness curriculum block (targeted at learning about one’s strengths and areas of growth) in which participants took a Sorting Hat Quiz to discover which house they were in (this is a Ravenclaw writing to you, by the way!). A rich discussion about the general strengths/areas of growth possessed by characters in each House, whether teens identified with those characteristics, and the value of diversity and differences, then ensued. Discussing these difficult topics that involved self-reflection within the context of a shared special interest was much more successful than if we were to provide a lecture on this topic.

Demonstrating Unique Strengths in Specific Roles

Tapping into a participant’s strengths and providing the opportunity to showcase their talents to others can be supportive in building esteem. When a participant’s special interest is music, we look for times where they can act as a “DJ” (e.g., while riding in the car or setting up a playlist during a cooking activity). When a participant has a special interest in movies, we support them in taking a leadership role when the group is planning a field trip to the movies. We support teens who have a passion for maps or trains in assuming the “navigator” role when exploring the community and train system. During the summer, MGH Aspire also encourages each teen program to come together weekly for a trivia game with questions based on the specific special interests that participants have shared. This past summer included questions about fantasy, superhero movies, music, history, and Star Wars. This opportunity allowed each teen a chance to showcase their wealth of knowledge in a particular area to other group members.

Looking Ahead

As September begins, consider sharing your child’s special interest with their teachers and discuss ways to integrate this into teaching or assignments. Look for ways to incorporate the interest into activities or visuals used at home (e.g., power cards pertaining to a special interest). Support your teen in finding safe online communities in which they can bond with others who share their interest. As with everything, moderation is important. Support your child or student in building a healthy relationship with their special interest and collaborate with them to determine a balance.