Interest or a Perseveration? When an Autistic Child’s Special Interest Sabotages Community Inclusion

By Lisa Jo Rudy, author of Get out, Explore, and Have Fun! How Families of Children with Autism or Asperger Syndrome Can Get the Most out of Community Activities

My son, Tom, is diagnosed with a high functioning form of autism. As a little guy, he was crazy about legos (still is!). Legos are terrific toys: they promote logic, creativity, fine motor skills, and much more. They’re also a great tool for building social relationships: there are Lego clubs, multi-player Lego video games, even Lego robotics teams. All of these are skills a child with autism needs – and Legos can be an ideal, kid-friendly way to build them.

The only problem was that, back then, Tom didn’t build Lego models, or create Lego structures: he hoarded Legos. He lined them up. He stuffed them into his pockets. In short, he perseverated on Legos as objects. He didn’t engage with them as toys or building tools.

Over time, Tom developed new skills – and Lego developed new toys. As I write, he’s downstairs constructing an elaborate Lego model using complex reasoning and imaginative skills and following an extremely complex diagrammatic blueprint. How long did this change take our son? The process took nearly ten years. Even now, while he’s a very capable Lego builder, he’s not engaging in the activity with others. Perhaps next year he’ll be ready for a true club experience.

Many children with autism have passionate interests. In some cases, these are true interests which can lead to many fascinating adventures in the community. In other cases, as with Tom when he was younger, the “interest” was in fact a perseveration.

What’s the difference?

An interest is flexible. A child who is interested in dogs may be interested in learning about different breeds, attending a dog show, joining a 4-H dog club, or taking care of a pet dog.

A perseveration is inflexible. A child who perseverates on dogs may simply want to collect and hoard figurines of dogs and recite the names of the breeds – but he or she will have no real interest in better understanding or caring for dogs.

An interest can be shared. A child who is fascinated by football may want to watch a game with a family member, discuss stats with a friend, or join a fantasy league.

A perseveration is individual. A child who perseverates on football may stash hundreds of trading cards, but will rarely want to trade them, play with them, or even discuss them – except by reciting a memorized “script.”

A person can grow with an interest. A child’s interest in finger painting can become a tween’s interest in acrylic painting and a teen’s interest in oil painting – each medium being a progressively more difficult and richer tool.

A person is “stuck” in a perseveration. The child who perseverates on finger painting isn’t interested in painting. He or she may love the texture, smell or color of the paint, but the interest is in the thing itself and not in its usefulness as an artistic tool.

As a parent, you are the best judge of whether a “passionate interest” is an interest or a perseveration. If it’s an interest, it’s a spring board for community inclusion. If it’s a perseveration, it’s not a springboard at all, but rather an anchor. As with all anchors, it has a useful place – but no boat can move forward with its anchor firmly stuck in the mud.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

Books related to this blog post

 Get out, Explore, and Have Fun!

Get out, Explore, and Have Fun!

How Families of Children with Autism or Asperger Syndrome Can Get the Most out of Community Activities

Lisa Jo Rudy


1 Response

  1. Emily July 10, 2017 / 2:19 am

    I just want to thank you for this article’s clarity–much needed for me in understanding my little guy and much appreciated.

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