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The Benefits of a Special Interest for Individuals with Autism: An Interview with Erin Lozott, M.S., CCC-SLP

By Merrick Egber

When I was very little, I had no sense of actual identity until I played the first Super Mario Brothers for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), from then on I wanted to learn how to read and to become a video game designer. Then I would make friends based on how enthused they were on the topic of video games, like I was. I still didn’t have a regular hobby, though, outside of roleplaying and drawing/coloring. I could never program, or design, a video game so that was off the shelf.

As I grew up, I needed something to make myself feel more purposeful, more worth it, and to make my life more meaningful. When I got introduced to The Beatles, in my teens, I was floored! The music was sensational, I wanted to be like them! So I started writing song lyrics and poetry, and I finally found my expressive vibe. I also found my little world that I could call my home, the ‘60s countercultural world, and there were people out there that I could relate to, it was so great!

It was thanks to all of that that I finally found myself. But anyone else could’ve called my interests ‘geeky’, ‘nerdy’, (funnily enough) ‘autistic’ which I’ll always wear with pride (who wouldn’t), but my interests, instead, were celebrated. My mother would create these graphic designs to fit my poetry, I would go to Beatles festivals, and I would constantly keep on writing and writing.

In celebration of Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to write about this symptom of having a ‘special interest’ as being a thing worth paying attention to, and, perhaps, worthy of being celebrated. A ‘special interest’ can be a strong identifier for a person with ASD and a strong mental health helper and nobody may know it better than our Director of Clinical Services, Mrs. Erin Lozott, who it was decided to interview for this article.

 

Can you introduce yourself and your position at the Foundation?

My Name is Erin Brooker Lozott and I am the Director of Clinical Services and Global Support at the Foundation.

 

How did you get involved with the Foundation? Especially in the Clinical Services Department?

I learned about the Foundation from our Executive Director, Dr. Marlene Sotelo when she, Mrs. Els and a few key members of the Foundation toured the autism center in Atlanta I used to work at in an effort to get ideas for the buildings. Dr. Sotelo had shared my work and background with Mrs. Els and at the end of the tour, they asked if I would want to come home (since I grew up in South Florida) to work with the Foundation and help open the Center. In learning more about the mission and vision of the Foundation, in taking a trip down to see the construction site, and in volunteering at a fundraising event, it was clear to me that Els for Autism was meant to be my new professional home.

The clinical services department was a given as I have been a clinician my entire career, I was coming in with several years of experience in building a autism focused clinical practice, and had experience in managing clinical services and clinical research projects at an autism center for excellence. Dr. Sotelo and I had been professional colleagues for many years, so she had firsthand knowledge of my skills. In discussing the programs and services Dr. Sotelo was envisioning to offer at the Foundation and in aligning those ideas with the Els’ family vision for the center, hiring someone to lead and oversee the clinical services was a natural next step.

 

What have you learned about individuals with autism since you started working in the field of neurodiversity?

Individuals with autism are excellent employees. Individuals with autism fill in the blanks to salient details in the world individuals without autism can’t see at first glance. Individuals with autism have unique needs that often benefit from individualized supports and accommodations, and when these accommodations are made an increase in productivity and efficiency of work is occurs. I have learned that an accommodation for one, when well supported, can be transformed into an effective system change for all. I have learned to learn from others. I have learned to be a better and more active listener even when someone is communicating without words. The field of neurodiversity embraces and celebrates individual differences. It has helped me learn that ‘normal’ is not a compliment. Working in a neurodiverse field has taught me how to better match work responsibilities to individual areas of strength and interest. Working with people with autism has fulfilled my life. I have hope for my daughter and her future now that neurodiversity is a way of life in communities and the workforce.

One of the symptoms generally observed in individuals with autism is special interests – or special passions. How important is it to the overall identity of the individual with autism? How prevalent is it for people with the condition?

I feel areas of special interests are important to foster if those interested are safe and healthy and can be fostered in a manner that may fulfill the quality of life indicators all people have a right to experience. If the special interest happens to not lend to a skill safe or healthy to foster, then it is important to continue building skills while monitoring one’s areas of interest in the case a new skill learned results in a passion that can be further explored and enhanced.

I don’t know how important a special interest or passion is to individuals with autism. I think this question is best answered by people with autism. My initial thought is that each person may have a slightly different answer. Some may feel it is significant, some may feel it is a need versus how they identify themselves, and others may not even think about it. I would love to learn more about this topic. This is an excellent question to continue to explore.

Special or what is commonly termed restricted areas of interest and activities are core to the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. How an interest manifests in one person versus another is unique to everyone.

 

From your perspective, why do you think that all is? Remember, no wrong answers. 

If you are asking about why I think special interests are present, my response would be that people with autism often don’t gain input from social interactions in the same way that people without autism do. When a person with autism experiences the same level of stimulation or fulfillment as someone without autism does from social interaction, then it would stand to reason that the individual with autism would likely become hyper-focused or better yet an expert on that topic/in that area. People with autism are neurologically rewarded for paying attention to nonbiological/non-social-emotional stimuli in a similar manner that a person without autism is neurologically rewarded for engagement in social interaction.

 

While these types of interests may be observed as eccentricities, quirks, or non-understandable, you see the benefits of these. Can you explain the benefits from an BCBA ​or SLP perspective?  

Motivation is necessary for learning. To communicate you first need to have the motivation or intent to want to communicate. If you can establish motivation and use a strength-based method of teaching within meaningful and purposeful activities learning experiences are going to be engaging. When a person is actively engaged in a learning process, learning occurs more rapidly. Trying to teach or establish new skills in a manner that works against the grain slows down the learning process and may ultimately hinder one’s learning potential.

 

Let’s role play – I am a child with a distinct interest in stethoscopes. How would you work with my interest in stethoscopes?

You are so smart and creative, Merrick! This is great. I may teach all the language that goes along with a stethoscope, teach language about the professionals that work with a stethoscope, help a child learn to build words from the letters in the word stethoscope, teach money skills related to the cost of a stethoscope and include the item within word problems or learning scenarios to prompt interest. I may then teach about an actual stethoscope and use it as a representation of how to listen and attend carefully. I may integrate it into a pretend play scenario for a young child. I may take pictures and have the stethoscope become a part of a reinforcement system, learning how to count by listening in to heartbeats, etc., and many more! Hope this matches your desired response!

 

How can caregivers use special interests to help them communicate with an individual with autism? Are there any programs or resources that you recommend helping parents foster connection and communication with their child? 

Special interests should be seen by others as a significant part of a person with autism’s life and can serve for others to better understand the lens through which a person with autism sees the world.

It is important and research now shows it is beneficial for families and professionals to leverage the special interests’ areas of individuals on the spectrum. Families can use special interest areas to help develop language, communication, social skills, coping skills, and emotional wellbeing amongst many other skills. Engagement in special interest areas can be taught to be used as a source of self-regulation and as mentioned before these interests can be fostered into career paths or jobs.

Families and professionals can find ways to lessen or mitigate challenging behaviors by way of embracing areas of special interests. Families can help by remembering special interest areas are not hobbies or activities, but instead, they are often a way of life. To sum this point up, John Gabrieli, a neuroscientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology stated, “If this is their natural motivating capacity, then rather than try to suppress it, it might be more helpful to the child to build on it.”

 

A few strategies for families include:

  • Making a list of their child’s special interest(s)
  • Apply the identified interests of the student into various forms across teaching areas.
  • Use the child’s interest to make social connections
  • Update the list of special interests as they change while continuing to integrate the student’s interest into learning experiences

 

What would you call your special interest or passion? How has that informed you?

Autism-It has helped me embrace the details in life, have humility, look through multiple lenses before making a decision or judgment call, think from two polarizing perspectives, look for the light in the moments, not the days, always continue to move forward, be a better mother to my daughter, travel the world, have an appreciation for neurodiversity, and have a longstanding career that is not just a job, but instead my way of life. My special area interest in autism has helped me become the professional and person I am today. It has helped make me the best me I can be!