Saturday, October 24, 2015

Why I'm Not Worried About My Autistic Kid's Latest Passion

“If a child with autism has voluminous knowledge about a single subject, why is that an ‘obsessive interest’ rather than ‘expertise’?”  -Ellen Notbohm 
Today our family attended a rare coin show for the first time ever.  It was a chance encounter.  We decided to take Ben to a coin store and the dealer mentioned that we should check the event out.  It was only a few miles down the road, and so we did.  Ben has been collecting coins religiously for the past few months.  Not just any coins- state quarters.  The passion started this summer while we were in Indiana visiting family.  We took a road trip to Ohio, and the moment we crossed over the state line and Ben saw the huge “Welcome to Ohio” sign, his new passion was born.  It suddenly clicked in his mind that our country is made up of states, and these states are connected through their borders.  He was hungry to learn more.  And so, he has joyfully delved into learning everything there is to know about the states.  This love has extended to out of state license plates, US landmarks (think Mount Rushmore and the St. Louis arch), with his pride and joy being his state quarter collection.
Some might say that Ben is obsessed with the United States.  Autism experts often point to “rigid obsessions” as one of the hallmarks of the spectrum.  Some believe that an autistic obsession is harmful and should be stopped so that the person can move on to other, more “socially-appropriate” or “age-appropriate” subjects.  I tend to disagree. 

And here are some reasons why I think that becoming an expert on a subject is a cause for celebration rather than concern.

1)   It opens doors to learning

I’m a teacher, and over the years I’ve read lots of school mission statements.  Usually a school’s mission talks about inspiring kids to have a “passion for learning.”  It’s no secret that when kids are motivated to learn, their engagement increases, as does their achievement.  In Ben’s case, his love of learning about the United States has launched us into a joyful study of US geography.  I would wager that he now knows more about US geography than most adults.  He can build a US puzzle in under a minute.  He spends hours on Google Earth navigating and studying landmarks.  One day he discovered Washington DC on Google Earth, which led to conversations about our United States presidents.  He is convinced that we need to take a trip to DC when he becomes a second grader (and how can I argue with that logic?).  His explorations of Google Earth has led to discussions about other countries in the world, oceans, deserts, islands, cardinal directions, travel time between states, and so much more.  His love of state quarters has spurred many talks about money, currency, and the value of common versus rare coins.  We have watched videos on how currency is made and he has contemplated future careers for himself.  We have talked about vocabulary terms such as mint condition, borders, and currency.  All terms I would not normally discuss with a six year old, but they naturally progress in our everyday conversations through his questions and his zeal to learn more.

2)   It connects him with the community

It’s not every day that you see a six year old with a passion for coin collecting.  It’s fun to watch the reactions of grown-ups in public.  On one particularly memorable trip to Subway, Ben received the change from the teenage girl and he jumped into the air with glee.  “A MISSOURI quarter.  Thank you SO much!!”  The girl could not stop smiling.

The deal we’ve struck with Ben is that when we use cash in a store or a restaurant, he gets to keep our state quarters.  Of course, now he wants us to pay with cash everywhere we go.    He handles all of the money transactions for the family.  He’s getting good at asking politely if the cashier has any state quarters in their tills.  They are always happy to look for him, and he’s learning to handle the disappointment when they don’t have it.  He takes it in stride.

Finding a state quarter on a trip to the store is fun, but it was nothing compared to the joy he felt today when he entered the coin convention and spotted rows and rows of rare, gleaming coins.  His eyes lit up like a kid at Christmas.  As I looked around the crowded convention hall, it was clear that he was the only kid in the building.  As he approached each table, studying the cases carefully, the vendors would look up in surprise, especially as he started naming the coins he recognized from the Internet.  Many would over and talk to him and were amazed that he could carry on a conversation about their coins.  They were clearly pleased to see a young person taking such an interest in their collection.  Many passed on tips and advice.  Some would even take coins out of the case and let him hold them.  One asked when his birthday was and dug until he found a coin from his birth year, giving it to him at no charge.  He would not accept our money, instead making Ben “pay” by promising to “do what Mom and Dad say”.  My heart warmed as I watched my little boy become accepted into a community as their apprentice.  He left with his pockets jingling and a huge smile on his face.
3)  It makes him happy

This is perhaps the most important reason of all.  How many of us still find the time for the things in life that bring us true happiness?  When Ben finds a new quarter, his whole face lights up.  He may not be interested in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Avengers or other things that six-year-old boys typically enjoy, but his interests are no less valid.  And, by cultivating his interests rather than pushing him towards something that is more “socially typical”, we are allowing him to express his true self, and, by extension, teaching him to be happy in his own skin. 

I have no desire to change my son.  If anything, I want to be more like him when I grow up. 


  1. Totally agree with you.
    My son's pokemon obsession of ...oh...10 years teaches him to absorb and connect information, builds math, science and reading skills, and makes him so incredibly happy!!!!
    just this weekend, i was feeling really down and spent a little time with my garden lists and felt so much better: Yay for special interests!
    thanks and love,

    1. I mentor a boy at school with a Pokemon passion. He works all week to earn Pokemon cards from me. I still don't know much about Pokemon but it makes him happy. As long as the interest isn't hurting the person or others, I say have at it!

  2. Trust me, it's totally a kid passion. My seven-year-old grandson, who isn't autistic, has been obsessed with money (and coins in particular) for almost two years now. He's also found all the state quarters, has gotten an Indian head penny from the tooth fairy, sometimes uses his allowance to buy rare coins, and once spent all of a $25 birthday gift on a BIG box of wrapped pennies from the bank! Like your son, he's an excellent math student and his love of coins is part of the inspiration. Does your son have a toy cash register? If not, it's the perfect gift...

    1. Thanks for sharing your reply! I've heard from so many people recently who know someone with a love of coins, and we've even had friends and family on the hunt for us. It's a whole other level of community involvement...and that is so great for him. Yes, one of my teacher friends gave him a toy cash register as a gift, and he does love it. Thanks for the tip!


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