July 9, 2019

Use Your Special Interest to Understand Your Thinking!

Hello Everyone,

      I hope you are all well and are having a lovely summer.  There will be two posts this month to make up for not having one in June.  In this post, we will be exploring how you, whether a therapist, parent, care provider, or someone else, can help your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and other developmental diagnoses not considered intellectual in nature, understand how their thoughts work by connecting them with their special interest as a METAPHOR.  The second post will cover special considerations for those populations.  Using your child's special interest as a metaphor for understanding thinking is not hard at all.  It can actually be quite fun and only requires your attention, empathy, and as much of an imagination as possible  to come up with ways to visualize the invisible concept of thoughts and how they affect feelings and behavior.
     Using your child's special interest to connect with them to not only help them understand how they think serves many useful purposes in addition to facilitating your child's progress in mastering their challenges beyond the therapy office.  When you connect with your child around their special interest you are sending critical non-verbal messages of unconditional acceptance and acknowledgement of their existence and values as a unique individual.  Using a special interest in a metaphorical sense also has the additional benefit of generating empathy, the ability to truly understand things from their point of view.  Rapport, or the positive connection between individuals that serves as the building blocks for a relationship, is also improved when you use another individual's special interest to help them understand a concept because it demonstrates that you can make a meaningful emotional connection with them.  Lastly, using a special interest helps them understand themselves and be more accepting of themselves and also more compassionate regarding their feelings and thoughts behind the observed behavior.  They are then truly able to see beyond their behavior and visualize themselves as more than just a product of action.

    So why is using a special interest to connect so important for teaching someone with ASD how to understand their thinking?  Here's why (there are many more besides these):
 Attention: Individuals with ASD have shorter attention spans for many reasons beyond the scope of this post.  This can be greatly exacerbated if learning materials are too complex or considered to be irrelevant to the individual, or considered threatening (such as with perfectionism if the individual struggles with some form of comprehension).  These individuals have been shown to be able to pay greater attention when concepts are related to their special interest.
Abstraction: Individuals with ASD have significant challenges understanding abstract concepts, especially those involving other people such as around thoughts, feelings, or any "invisible concept" like social norms and beliefs and values.  They have a significantly harder time generalizing abstract concepts to others.
Concrete thinking: Due to challenges with abstract thinking, the processes of complex thinking can be very stressful and limiting.  They are also more likely to view abstract concepts very narrowly from a self-centered lens, as well and not be able to conceptualize abstract concepts of wider consequences or the options presented by choices.  Consequently, they are more likely to view others and their actions in terms of themselves and how they think, often unconsciously
Perseveration: Individuals with ASD can become hyper-focused on certain topics such as special interests or if they believe their views on their actions are being criticized by others or not respected.
Connectivity and relevance: As an extension of the above, many times individuals with ASD struggle to understand how thoughts, feelings, behaviors, that affect others will affect them or why it is important to understand the mechanisms behind them.  Basically, "why should I care?"  Remember, it is not because of a lack of empathy, but more around an inability to connect abstract concepts to each other.
Generalization and Consistency: For learning to accept and cope with your thoughts, there needs to be consistency, which means practice outside of the therapy session, and generalization, which means taking the concept being taught in session and applying it to the outside, everyday world.  Since you are likely not a therapist, using a special interest as a metaphor can help you continue that education and practice beyond the therapy office.

    OK, so how do you connect with your child using their special interest to help them practice their negative thinking skills beyond the therapy office?  The biggest points to remember are affinity, creativity, and flexibilityAffinity means being able to conjure up a connection between seemingly unrelated concepts or topics in a natural and genuine way.  Creativity is your best friend in addition to having knowledge of what your child is working on in therapy sessions so you can use what you have identified in the child's special interest that can be connected to the work in the therapy session.  You need flexibility to be able to change your metaphor as needed based on how your child responds.  You are THE EXPERT on them so if your attempt is too complex or not specific enough (remember that these guys often are highly interested in a sub-topic within a sub-topic of a broad topic) make sure you read up so you can make that connection.  Let's look at some examples below from some of my clients and concepts they were struggling to understand.

A 21 year-old man who is really interested in the manufacturing of different tanks in a war economy.

Therapy Concept: Changing negative thinking to positive thinking
Special Interest: The manufacturing of tanks
Affinity: Tank production requires specific machine tools to make different components of a                               functional tank.  Manufacture of different tank models require different machine tools
Metaphor: When we change our thinking from negative to positive it's as if our brain were a tank manufacturing center, which has been producing one model of tank and has just received an order to make a new model of tank.  A process begins of "re-tooling" the machines so they can be adapted to making the new tank.  Our brains have to "retool" their thinking process to change from negative to positive thinking and "manufacture" a new model of thought.

A 12 year-old boy who loves Adam Sandler movies

Therapy Concept: What happens when we allow negative thoughts to take over
Special Interest: Adam Sandler movies
Affinity: Adam Sandler's nemesis in Happy Gilmore, Shooter McGavin, gets in to Happy's "happy place" and ruins his calm focus during the golf tournament
Metaphor: When we are experiencing positive or calm thoughts we are focused and able to function smoothly.  However, when we allow negative thoughts, or worries, or anxious thoughts in, we are letting Shooter McGavin into our minds and he is doing the same thing to us that he did when he got into Happy Gilmore's "Happy Place" by getting him all distracted and unable to focus and stay calm and controlled.

A 38 year-old man who is really interested in children's toys, particularly ones that make sounds

Therapy Concept: How triggers can lead to cascades of anxious automatic thoughts.
Special Interest: Children's toys that make sounds
Affinity: Jack-in-the-box
Metaphor: When the Jack's crank starts turning it is like what happens when we experience a trigger for our anxiety.  As the crank turns faster and faster and the music plays, it's like what happens when we experience rapid anxious thoughts in quick order.  When the song stops and the Jack pops out, it's like what happens when we can no longer handle the anxiety and we experience a meltdown.

A 9 year-old girl who loves commercials and wants to be an ad executive

Therapy Concept: Negative/unhelpful thoughts are easier to manage when we acknowledge them and accept them without trying to fight them away
Special Interest: Commercials in different media formats
Affinity: Commercials have different formats and styles designed to send messages about their products to different groups of buyers.
Metaphor: Negative thoughts are like annoying, loud car commercials.  They both have a message that may be trying to be helpful but is doing a really bad job of sending their message.  A negative thought may be trying to say "hey be careful" and a bad car commercial might be saying "we can help you get a car if you need one" but when we focus on their negative qualities, we are just getting more dis-regulated and are not making the message go away by combatting it.

A 19 year-old woman who is specifically interested in different types of frosted cookies

Therapy Concept: Understanding different cognitive distortions that she uses
Special Interest: Frosted cookies
Affinity: Many cognitive distortions can be illustrated with different cookie making techniques and types of cookies.
Metaphor: Our cognitive distortions can be seen in terms of cookies and how we make them.  For example a black-white cookie can be used to illustrate black and white thinking; it's one or the other for the color of the cookie and only positive or negative for the thinking.  When we sift or filter flour for baking, we are re moving any impurities.  However, when we filter our thoughts we are keeping the impurities, the bad thoughts or details, and keep those instead of the ingredient we really want, the positives.

Lastly, a 22 year-old man who hyper-focused on The Force in Star Wars

Therapy Concept: We have the power to stay regulated and in control
Special Interest: The Force
Affinity: Using calming and deep breathing exercises is very similar to the Force training Luke Skywalker uses in Yoda's home where he has to balance the rocks by focusing his attention.
Metaphor: You can use the Force too by practicing meditation and focus as well as by taking your time when you are doing a task to really pay attention to the steps that need to be done so you do them correctly.  You have time and you can stay calm.

Parents and Professional Note!!! Many obvious objects and processes from the real world are applicable as metaphors for thinking such as computers and telephones to illustrate how the brain sends messages via thoughts and feelings.  Aspects of movies such as Star Wars are excellent for using as parallels to therapy concepts; "the force" used by Luke Skywalker and Yoda as a metaphor for mindfulness.  However, you need to remember that a special interest in Autism is usually very specific and involves a great deal of acquired knowledge on technical details on some subcomponent of a topic.  Even for those with ASD who are interested in fantasy subjects, such as Star Wars, the focus is usually more on technical and easily quantifiable concrete details of characters and their stories.  Just using a superficial knowledge of a special interest will not work for you; once you know your child's special interest find out their certain specialized area of focus within that topic and learn about it.  If you don't you risk your credibility as a caring listener and as an authority figure.  When you do take time to learn the details, you will be more successful at creating a more effective metaphor that teaches the cognitive concept and grabs their attention.
      Remember you are THE EXPERT on your child so use your own creative examples!  Remember to be compassionate to yourself as well when trying this out and also remember to give yourself a big hug for trying this out-of-the-box idea.  Best of Luck!


  1. I really appreciated your blog in helping people with intellectual disabilities learn about thinking. Thank you!