Encouraging autistic kids’ obsessive habits can help them later in life

Seeds of possibility.
Seeds of possibility.
Image: Reuters/Dan Lopez
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It may be that every child is born with the potential to be exceptional at something. But finding and cultivating ability is difficult, especially when a kid doesn’t just shine and display easily recognizable talents. This is true for all children but especially so for kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Kids with ASD—a cognitive impairment that affects language and emotional development—often don’t appear intelligent or able because they have difficulty communicating and connecting, which thwarts overall learning. They can’t deal with school and tests and social situations. They tend to be hypersensitive to sight, sounds, smell, and touch, which makes socializing and education difficult because they’re overwhelmed by sensory information others would find normal. But the same sensitivity seems also to be the key to discovering the unique abilities of the neurodivergent, which can be cultivated and put to use.

For example, a small study from the UK’s Institute of Education, published recently in the journal Cognition, found autistic people were better able than a general population to perform musical tasks but were also more easily distracted by sounds in social contexts. Heightened auditory and perceptual abilities which served as an advantage in one context proved disadvantageous in another.

This suggests a new view of autism. Instead of seeing sensitivities as a deficit they might instead signal potential.

The study only confirms what many medical experts, and parents of children with ASD, have long said: “dysfunction” is contextual. Take Rex Lewis-Clack, a 21-year-old musician who once couldn’t even stand the sound of Christmas presents being unwrapped. Then his father bought him a toy piano, and he taught himself to play music and proved to have perfect pitch. Now, he tours the world playing piano and raising money for charity.

All over the world, organizations, families, and individuals are starting to recognize that autistic kids have unique skills worth cultivating.

In the US, the New York Transit Museum’s Subway Sleuths after-school program for kids with ASD is designed to help the children develop an expertise in trains, and in social and communication skills. The program began in 2011 and won the 2016 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award (pdf) for its creative and effective strength-based approach.

“We are the first museum or cultural institution I know of that uses a special-interest area and works with kids on skills in a setting that they love in a way that honors their strengths and needs,” says Meredith Martin, the museum’s special education and access coordinator.

Subway Sleuths is based on studies showing dysfunctions diminish when kids with ASD are engaged in their special-interest areas, and was designed with experts at New York University’s ASD Nest program. People with autism are fascinated with transportation systems because their minds are inclined to systemize, or detect regular patterns in an environment, according to Simon Baron-Cohen, director of Cambridge University’s Center for Autism Research in the UK. Subway Sleuths, he says, “provides a terrific opportunity” to tap into a strong interest in autistic kids and to help them socialize in a friendly space.

Martin says the “sleuths” love a few specific aspects of the transit system: many memorize the make and model numbers of all the trains, some are taken with parts and mechanics, others with maps of the evolving subway lines.

The kids explore the museum’s collection of subway cars dating back to 1914, solve mysteries, working in pairs and teams, and learn about trains and transportation under the guidance of a speech language pathologist, a special education teacher, and a museum educator. This year, there’s also a mentor sleuthing with the kids, a graduate of the first 2011 program who is interning at the museum. At 17, he is teaching and developing skills he’ll take with him to work, says Martin. In the fall, more mentors with ASD who graduated from Subway Sleuths will also intern there.

Martin hopes to see more people with ASD out in the workforce. She believes the key to success is to look at the obsessive tendencies of autistics as an opportunity rather than a hindrance. For example, at the transit museum, an employee with ASD folds hundreds of boxes a week into train-car shapes which kids will later decorate. Others find the task tedious; he finds it soothing.

“The old model was to limit obsession and see it as a negative,” says Martin. “The new model honors strengths and interests, which benefits society and the workforce. People with autism bring unique perspectives and skills.”   

That’s also the thinking behind the Israeli Defense Forces Roim Rachok program—its name is literally Hebrew for “seeing far,” and is translated as “Watching the Horizon” by the IDF. The program helps autistic high school students prepare for enlistment in the IDF—they may be exempted from military service, but it’s considered an integral part of Israeli life and many wish to participate. Later, Roim Rachok works with ASD recruits and advocates for them in the military.

The IDF recruits some teens with ASD as soldiers in the Visual Intelligence Division, or Unit 9900.  The soldiers spend hours staring at satellite maps, scanning millimeters looking for minute changes in patterns that aren’t discernable to others. One soldier with ASD in Unit 9900 told The Atlantic that the job is relaxing and “like a hobby.”

Not all autistic recruits end up in an elite unit like 9900, which has a rigorous testing process, but those who do not are given the opportunity to serve in secretarial or civil service roles. Last year, the IDF for the first time also recruited soldiers with ASD into a ground forces unit called the Ordnance Corps.

It’s a small program; of 70 ASD applicants to the Ordnance Corps, only eight ultimately made it through the intense testing process. They were admitted to work on optics and electronics repairs, skills that will help them find employment later, according to the army.  The military says it hopes that military service can help youth with ASD engage beyond the amy and integrate as adults in society. To that end, soldiers also learn social skills and how to manage routine activities, like riding a bus.

It’s an unusual opportunity to feel normal. One of the recruits, Omer K, said in a statement after training for the Ordnance Corps, “I just want to be like everyone else. I am very excited to put on the uniform.”

Recognition of ASD in general, and the possibilities and challenges it presents, seems to be on the rise around the world. In Bangkok, Thailand, a mounted police unit provides social and physical therapy to autistic children by training them to ride horses. The program is free of charge.

At the Guatemalan Association for Autism in Guatemala City, founded in 2012, the motto is that autism is “not a disease. It’s a difference.” Kids with ASD who attend the nonprofit organization’s school learn in targeted development programs designed to promote inclusion. But it’s the only such institution in the country and serves only about a dozen children while there are an estimated 160,000 kids with ASD in Guatemala. The organization also runs national awareness campaigns in the hope that more kids with ASD can be correctly diagnosed. It was founded by advocates and doctors who say autism is “invisible” to Guatemalans.

This complaint is common. ASD activists everywhere say there’s a need for more awareness to correctly diagnose and treat autistic kids.

The media may help. In the UK, the Guardian on May 25 began publishing a cartoon series on understanding autism. This past March, Sesame Street introduced its first new muppet in a decade: Julia, a 4-year-old girl with autism. In the US, next fall, ABC will air The Good Doctor about a surgeon with autism working at a prestigious hospital, struggling to connect emotionally but exceptionally skilled at medicine.

Still, not every kid with ASD is a secret genius, and media efforts to illuminate autism can be a mixed blessing, Martin says. She worries about two extremes in thinking: believing autistics are incapable of learning and, conversely, expecting them all to be savants. Ideally, with a strength-based approach to educating autistic kids, more adults on the spectrum could later find their niche, a place in society and work that suits them, even if they aren’t geniuses. The first step is looking for the spark in every child.