How to Help Your Autistic Child to Expand His Interests

When my son was three years old, he loved Sesame Street. He is now 19. He still loves Sesame Street, "The Little Mermaid," picture books, and Thomas the Tank Engine. He can watch the same Disney movies over and over again, and knows the name of every vehicle on the fictional "Island of Sodor." He loves creating models and "worlds" with legos, listening to Disney music, and finding interesting images from the natural world (snails, for example) on his computer.

Man laying on the ground playing with toys
Letizia McCall / Getty Images

These fascinations hurt no one. And while they are not "age-appropriate" for a young man, they are certainly safer and more positive than, say, video games and movies about murder and theft or fast driving or keg parties or casual sex — all of which would be considered "normal" male interests in our culture.

So why do people feel so uncomfortable around people whose interests are "age-inappropriate?"

The answer is very simple. People who display age-inappropriate interests are different. Different means weird. ​Weird people are frightening. Frightening kids are ostracized, teased, and bullied. Frightening adults are marginalized and lonely, and have extraordinarily difficult time building relationships, getting and keeping jobs, or even being accepted as community volunteers.

People with autism have tremendous challenges with ​social communication. Add age-inappropriate topics of interest and conversation, and those challenges can become insurmountable obstacles.

How Autistic People Can Learn to Have More Age-Appropriate Interests

How can we honor autistic areas of interest while also supporting true community inclusion and respect? It's not always as difficult as it sounds!

  1. Explain and discuss the issue. If your child is able to discuss and understand the eccentricities of other people, why not just have the conversation? Tell your child the truth: Neurotypical people are strange. They say they value non-violent, positive media — and then become anxious when an older child or adult man says "I really love watching Disney movies, don't you?" It's fine to tell your child that, while his or her interests are absolutely fine, some people will find them confusing — and thus it's best to enjoy and discuss those interests at home or with friends who share them.
  2. Build on existing areas of interest. It's possible to enjoy Thomas the Tank Engine and ALSO enjoy learning about and traveling on real trains. If your child is able to generalize from her favorite TV show, you can show her a whole world of related interests that are more likely to meet with acceptance from the neurotypical world.
  3. Add new experiences and opportunities without subtracting existing interests. A person who loves Elmo may also love hiking, blockbuster movies, model rocketry, or rock collecting. Instead of focusing on what's "wrong" with Elmo, consider helping your child to expand his world. As new interests become more significant, old fascinations may begin to fade a bit.
  4. Find situations in which "inappropriate" interests are appropriate. It may be "weird" for an older child to read picture books to himself — but it's just fine for him to read those same books to young children at school or at a library. It may be "strange" for an adult to go see a new Pixar film on his own, but it's ok to do so in a family group that includes young children. As possible, you may be able to help your child to find the right time and place to enjoy a particular interest.
  5. Discover similar but more "socially acceptable" options. Bizarrely, while a teen who loves Sesame Street is "weird," a teen who loves The Muppets may be considered geeky and (in some circles) kinda cool. An adult who plays with blocks is bizarre, but an adult who builds complex Lego structures is an artist (and such structures are now in high demand!). A woman who dresses up as Snow White just for fun might be strange, but a woman who goes to a Comicon (comic book convention) dressed as Wonder Woman is awesome.
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