It’s the latest in a long string of “special”, “unusual”, or “narrow” interests, as they are called when in reference to children on the autism spectrum. Others may even call them “obsessions”. Whatever words you use to describe a focused interest, it seems most kids really really like something, sometimes intensely so, at one time or another. For many it’s trains, or cars, or wheeled things in general. Others like numbers or letters, even learning to read at a relatively young age. Lots of kids find certain movies or movie/TV characters endlessly entertaining or interesting. And I mean *all* kids, not just kids with autism. What makes an interest “special, unusual, narrow, or an obsession” is based on intensity. For kids with autism, in addition to being a favorite topic of conversation, it is often the ONLY topic of conversation. It seems to permeate every thought, every word, every interaction. Every attempt at play or connection is highjacked by the high interest topic.
As a teacher, I was trained to treat the intense interests of children on the spectrum as flaws, as something that interfered with “functioning”. “We’re not talking about trains right now.” ” We are ALL DONE talking about fans.” The thinking behind this approach was that we needed to teach children what was “appropriate” by rating their conversational subjects as okay or not okay while they were happening. We rewarded appropriate comments with attention, we punished “inappropriate” attempts by ignoring them or by admonishment. Now there is obviously merit in learning how to maintain a conversation, how not to bore your audience to tears, how to follow a dialogue, but the problem with this behavioral approach is that it never really addresses the reasons WHY you might want to participate in a dialogue or conversation successfully. Nor does it recognize that the high interest topics are often a great source of comfort for a child with dynamic thinking deficits. The solidity of knowing something in and out often provides an anchor for a child who finds it confusing and disarming to be in the middle of ever-changing, fluid, back and forth interactions that move and flow due to added variations and unpredictable contributions of others.
As a parent using RDI, I find the approach above to be not only lacking as a helpful intervention, but also disrespectful. The developmental nature of RDI handles this issue from the bottom, up. By providing opportunities for the brain to create the connections and pathways that make up the foundation for greater understanding of relationships, children gain the “missing piece” of most behavioral approaches. It’s often described as the “Why Bother” of learning anything. Piece by piece, step by step, RDI allows parents and children a “do over” of cognitive-social development. Children learn in a natural and organic way the importance of shared experience, the significance of sharing emotions with others, the joy of joint understanding and co-creating. From there, the finer points of topic maintenance and not boring your partner make sense. The Big Picture of interacting with others gives context to the otherwise arbitrary rules of appropriate and inappropriate conversation.
Ignoring or redirecting Ben’s high interest conversation topics never really worked in stopping the behavior. If anything, the anxiety my negative reactions produced in my son appeared to actually extend the length and intensity of the interests. I really thought we’d never get through his vacuum phase, until I decided to take a more RDI friendly approach. Instead of changing the subject or ignoring Ben when he started reciting the names of vacuum cleaners, I engaged with the topic. I expanded on his static, repetitive comments by asking open-ended questions. I offered my opinions. I asked him to share his. We looked online at different vacuum models, we asked the librarian for books about vacuums (they had one!), we visited the vacuum aisle in Lowe’s, took our vacuum apart, looked inside, learned the names of the parts, drew pictures, wrote stories (the Three Little Vacuums), and created our own vacuum models out of cardboard, tape, and toilet paper tubes. All of these activities thrilled Ben. He took part with gusto, often spearheading a project himself, asking to Google “Dyson vacuum” or to help him make a beater bar for his Hoover. I took advantage of his enthusiasm to incorporate RDI and home learning goals.
We had a ton of fun and as quickly as it appeared, the vacuum interest was over.
And so we are taking a similar approach to Ben’s latest interest. Working with instead of against and within the steps of development are the keys. It’s much more enjoyable this way, and we’re able to talk more about the “why bother” of the social rules. It all makes more sense to my son without the anxiety of trying to learn seemingly ever-shifting rules of conversation.
I can’t express enough how much RDI has added to our lives. And as time goes on, as my son grows, my understanding of the principles only gets deeper and more thorough. There is always more to learn, especially if you keep all your options open.