“A Love Letter to My Son’s Special Interests”

It was the first time the card table was used for its stated purpose.

In our excitement playing cards, we got too noisy and woke up the toddler. There was laughter and arguing. There was winning and losing.

I’d like to say my son, Ocean, was a gracious winner. I’d also like to say that I’m never a sore loser. Regardless, I was elated that we were playing – win or lose. I never thought my kid would land on card games as a special interest. And I know it won’t last, so I’m savoring these precious moments with extra gratitude.

Special Interests: My Son’s Rotating Fascinations

Ocean has autism and ADHD. Rather than sticking to one deep and abiding interest or bouncing around several interests at once (like me), he cycles through a different obsession every few months. There are some that repeat, like soccer, BEYBLADES, and various video games. I’m always happy when Pokémon comes up in the rotation.

My husband and I have always joined him in his interests, even when (as a baby) he just wanted to stare at the spinning ceiling fan. I’ll admit I didn’t enjoy spinning wheels on baby strollers when that was his fixation, and his interest in other peoples’ soccer balls didn’t make us popular at the playground. (On the other hand, soccer balls do have really cool designs, especially the Jabulani and Brazuca. Do you know how hard it is to find an original Jabulani? Can you guess how many hours I spent bidding on eBay?) While I didn’t love subway trips to a busy intersection to watch the pedestrian traffic light count down, he’s now traveling alone on public transportation – something I never imagined then.

When my son finds a new special interest, it feels a bit like opening a Christmas gift. I have no idea what it will be, but I know it will surprise me… and that it will get old eventually.

[Read: Autism vs. ADHD — A Parent’s Guide to Tricky Diagnoses]

I’ve observed the pattern. He learns all the planets and moves on to galaxies. He maps the states, then the world… But his fixation doesn’t hold; eventually, he gets restless. He spends a few weeks absentmindedly dabbling until something grabs his attention again. I have no influence on his infatuations, or how long he will stay interested in each one. I’ve tried. It backfires. I don’t think he has much say in what grabs him either.

The one time I successfully held the line was when hot peppers became his interest. When his own pediatrician told us that eating too many of them raw could cause internal damage, my own gut wrenched and I felt like the worst parent ever. Nope. No more. I told him, “You can talk about Scoville heat units, you can draw and categorize and research peppers to your heart’s delight, but no more raw spicy pepper eating challenges under my roof!” I value autonomy, but I value his health more. It wasn’t easy, but we moved on, with his stomach lining intact.

Was Celebrating My Son’s Special Interests Wrong?

Ocean was first flagged for early intervention at 13 months. He wasn’t crawling on all fours or showing any signs of walking.

It would be a while before I put all the pieces together: developmental delays, social differences, special interests, sensory avoidance, and difficulty regulating emotions. Still, we hadn’t considered autism. I even brushed off an evaluator who casually mentioned “red flags for autism” when Ocean lined up a set of toy cars instead of playing with them as expected.

[Read: Is My Child with ADHD on the Autism Spectrum?]

Then he went to preschool, where was expected to do things that were not his absolute favorite. The stimulation was a lot for him. He was having multiple meltdowns a day and struggled mightily with transitions. Even with the support of a 1-to-1 special education teacher, he barely endured the year.

At a new special-education school, his teacher asked for reward ideas that could motivate him. When I told her how much he liked letters and numbers, she was dismissive. “But that’s just stimming,” she said. I was speechless.

My confidence eroded. I started to think that all our celebrating of Ocean’s fascinations had been wrong. I wondered if I should have steered him away from the things that gave him comfort and joy. But I couldn’t. I loved to see the spark in him when he engaged with his true loves.

That year was damaging for both of us, and with perspective I am glad to have learned this lesson: Just because someone has a degree, doesn’t mean they are an expert – and they certainly aren’t an expert in your child.

Celebrating My Son’s Special Interests – and Strengths

We moved on to a more enlightened and neurodiversity-affirming elementary school, and my education in celebrating neurodiversity began. Those teachers and therapists brought Ocean’s interests into everything. They encouraged his strengths and nudged him along in his challenges. They partnered with us parents, and it felt like almost every professional truly cared about my son. He thrived.

Still, being neurodivergent in an ableist world is hard, and we leaned on supports as we overcame one struggle after another.

He’s moving on to high school next year, and I want to share a reflection with parents of younger neurodivergent kids: The problems fade with time, especially when you focus on encouraging their strengths. The glimmers of joy are what I recall, like snapshots.

When Ocean wasn’t meeting developmental milestones and was having multiple meltdowns a day, I never could have imagined this scene: my siblings, nieces, parents, all playing a card game that Ocean had organized and taught them, and all having a blast!

I can’t think of anyone with whom I’d rather stare at the fan, draw soccer balls, line up numbers, or play cards.

Special Interests, Autism, and ADHD: Next Steps

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