About autistic children’s and teenagers’ special interests, routines and rituals
Many autistic children and teenagers have special interests, routines or rituals. Some children have all of these things, and others have only some of them.
Autistic children and teenagers can have very specific and often strong interests. These might include toys, objects, activities and conversation topics.
For example, if your child is younger, they might:
- collect things like twigs or buttons
- be very interested in dates, landmarks or animals
- enjoy opening and closing doors repeatedly
- seem preoccupied with light switches.
Older children might have narrow or unique interests. For example, your child might:
- enjoy researching particular animals, TV shows or video games
- be very interested in art or chess.
Some autistic children move from one interest to another, with their interests lasting for weeks or months. Others develop interests during early childhood that continue through adolescence and into adulthood.
Rituals are things that autistic children and teenagers like to do in the same way every time. For example, your child might:
- arrange their favourite objects in a particular way
- have to get their objects out and touch them before bed
- drink only from particular cups
- like food presented in a certain way or at a particular temperature
- ask the same questions and need specific answers.
Routines can be important to autistic children and teenagers, who often need predictability and find it difficult to cope with change. For example, your child might need to eat, sleep or leave the house in the same way every time. They might feel unsettled, stressed or upset if they can’t follow their bedtime routine, go to school using the usual route or put their clothes on in the usual order.
Why special interests, routines and rituals are good for autistic children and teenagers
Autistic children and teenagers enjoy their special interests. They might be proud of their skills and knowledge. And they often do well in school subjects, social groups and jobs that relate to their interests.
Special interests, routines or rituals also help some autistic children and teenagers manage stress and anxiety.
For example, your child might not understand what’s going on around them and feel stressed. In these situations, special interests, routines or rituals can give your child a sense of control. Likewise, if your child has trouble with planning or coping when they don’t know what to expect, a routine or ritual can help life feel more structured and predictable. This can comfort your child and reduce stress and anxiety.
Sensory sensitivities can be linked to special interests. For example, children might feel calm when they stroke soft toys, so they might want to collect soft toys.
Using special interests, routines and rituals to help autistic children and teenagers develop
When you understand and embrace your autistic child’s special interests, routines or rituals, you can help them develop, learn and thrive.
By making time for your child to enjoy their special interest, you give your child the chance to self-regulate and relax in their own way. Your child might then have more energy to learn new skills or engage with other people.
You can also use special interests to help your child learn new skills in interesting and engaging ways. For example:
- Speech and language skills – you and your child could read maps, talk about space or use magnetic letters to spell out country names.
- Fine motor skills – you and your child could read about Pokémon, cut out pictures of trains or build with Lego.
- Flexible thinking and problem-solving skills – you and your child could follow a recipe for a favourite food or play a board game together.
- Social connections and communication skills – your child might enjoy interest-based groups like art lessons, Lego club, chess club or music classes. They can connect with likeminded peers and practise listening actively, asking questions, and taking turns.
Routines and rituals
By using routines and rituals, you can help your child’s life feel more structured and predictable. This can be good for your child’s learning and development.
These ideas can help:
- Let your child to get ready for school in the same way each morning to help them feel less anxious about going to school.
- Do the same activity after school each day to help your child unwind when they get home.
- Follow a bedtime routine to help your child develop good sleep patterns.
Managing problematic special interests, routines and rituals
If particular interests, routines or rituals are causing problems for your child, you might need to help your child to find alternative behaviour.
Before stepping in, you can ask questions about the behaviour and how it affects your child and family. For example:
- Is your child’s behaviour affecting their ability to learn?
- Is your child’s behaviour affecting their social life?
- Is your child’s behaviour affecting your family’s ability to do day-to-day activities or go on holidays or trips?
- Is your child’s behaviour causing harm to themselves or others?
If you decide your child needs help with their special interests, routines or rituals, the answers to these questions might also help you work out what to focus on.
The next step is to think about how the special interest, routine or ritual helps your child at the moment. For example, does it help them express their feelings or feel relaxed? Or does it give them a sense of control?
Finally, think about whether there’s a safer way for your child to do the same behaviour or another way for your child to meet the same needs.
For example, your child might need all their toy cars lined up on the bed before they’ll go to sleep, which affects their sleep. You could encourage your child to put 1-2 cars per night into a box next to their bed.
Autistic children can get upset when they can’t enjoy their special interest or do their routines or rituals. Strategies for making changes to routines and managing challenging behaviour can help you and your family manage these situations.
Getting professional help with special interests, routines and rituals
An experienced professional can help you understand and support your child’s special interests, routines or rituals. Professionals can also help you support your child in situations where special interests or rigid behaviour is distressing your child.