Autism Spectrum – Obsessions, School and the interpretation of intelligence

Recently, I read an article about Temple Grandin, who was diagnosed with autism at an early age.  She was encouraging businesses to employ those on the Autism spectrum – not for equality reasons – but because a person with Autism often has the ability to become an expert in their field and create the change that drives innovation in business.  She is a fabulous advocate for Autism and the strengths that those diagnosed with ASD bring to the world.

Children diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, often referred to as High Functioning Autism, are sometimes called  ‘little professors’,  because they can be obsessive about particular areas of interest. Many have an obsession of some sort.  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, and I have received emails from many parents who are at their wits end with their child as they become obsessed with a certain topic and will talk about it incessantly.

Many experts suggest trying to balance the obsession, however I believe that instead of trying to ‘balance’ the obsession, perhaps instead we should look at ways to learn’ within’ the obsession.

There have been literally 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, Steven Spielberg, and now the creator of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg, have all had the word Asperger’s connected to their names.  If you haven’t seen the movie The Social Network, which is the story of the creation of Facebook, and you have a child with Autism, then you should watch it. I bet by the end of the movie you will be shaking your head and smiling.  Even if Mark doesn’t have a formal diagnosis, you will see such similarities! And I have read numerous articles which describe arrogance or rudeness and the irony of how this guy, who finds making friends challenging, has created the most socially connected ‘friends’ website in the world.

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 his/her obsession will take him/her 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 often teaching administrators 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?

Intelligence is not about studying school subjects.  Intelligence is the ability to see what’s not there yet and come up with a solution.

Children on the Autistic spectrum, especially those with Asperger’s are perfect candidates for this, and when our school system figures this out – the world will be much better off.

6 Responses to “Autism Spectrum – Obsessions, School and the interpretation of intelligence”

  1. This is so true Sally. Its our kids that are different now that will make a difference to this world when they group up. I only hope they are not squashed down that much that they give up on themselves.

    Janell Cowell
    11:36 am on February 28th, 2011
  2. I hope all those in education get this message Sally. Who knows what the results will be if our special children are encouraged and assisted rather than put in a box on their own or expected to conform – usually at the lowest and easiest level of learning.

    Pamela McKimmie
    1:23 pm on February 28th, 2011
  3. You are right Pamela, we are seeing some changes, but for many children school is a very difficult place to be. All they need is a little understanding

    4:13 pm on March 1st, 2011
  4. A great point Janell!

    4:13 pm on March 1st, 2011
  5. Hi Sally,
    Receiving your email concerning school was perfect timing as my son logan has just started high school. I had to once again ring his teacher only yesterday because he was upset when I picked him up. His organisational skills aren’t the best so he was getting to classes late and usually didn’t have the right books. Today they worked with Logan to assist him and he seems ok until the next time. I have to say that his school is highly recommended for kids with aspergers, and it was great meeting the school’s coordinator of special needs, as she has a son with aspergers so we clicked because she knows what it’s like.
    Anyway thanks again Sally
    Michelle Tahir

    Michelle Tahir
    7:43 pm on March 3rd, 2011
  6. That is so good to hear Michelle, its all about partnerships! And to have a Special Need teacher with a child with Asperger’s – how lucky you and and Logan are!
    Great outcome, thank for sharing.

    7:56 pm on March 3rd, 2011

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