Autism and Special Talents: How Can We Help our Son Find His Passion?

May 30, 2014

We’ve read many stories on your website about families who discover a special talent in a child, teenager or even adult with autism. How can we help our son find his special gift or passion?  

Answer by Amy Hess (right), mother to Henry and the site coordinator for the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network Center of Excellence at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Columbus, Ohio, and child psychologists Barbara Mackinaw-Koons (left) and Caroline Murphy (center) also with the Autism Speaks ATN at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Ohio State University.


Amy: Our son, Henry has autism and is limited in his use of language. We’ve learned to think outside the box in my approach to finding his talents and interests.  After his diagnosis of autism, we attempted traditional activities like soccer, T-ball and swim lessons. Each proved frustrating for our child and disappointing for us as parents.  While we watched our friends and their children continue down the typical path, we came to realize that ours would be a different one. One less travelled.  Yes, there was some sadness in not following the typical path. But I also welcomed the opportunity to explore different options.

I think the most important step was paying attention to Henry’s interests. He loved water, snow and drawing.

So we began to focus in these areas. We regularly go to the beach, where Henry loves to swim. He’s also become a very accomplished kayaker.  That’s him in the picture on the right. In the winter, he loves to ski and with our encouragement he’s become active in his school ski club. Thought it took us 7 years to get him to feel independent on the big hills, he now skis faster than we had ever imagined. 

We are even more proud of his evolving work as an artist.  I often call Henry my serial artist. He draws constantly, and my house is full of all types of paper with faces, characters, models and sketches. While sometimes, I’m tempted to sweep away the clutter, I realize that it is part of Henry’s creative process. 

To encourage his passion, we take Henry to art stores so he can pick out markers, paper and other art supplies that meet his needs.  With his limited language, it can be difficult to identify the best art media for him. So taking him to art supply stores and exposing him to the options has been important. The next step was for us to begin visiting venues that showcase art. With exposure and experience, Henry has been able to give us clues to his likes and dislikes.

We recently recognized the need for assistance from an art professional. Henry now works with his art mentor, Tracy Settle, each week. She introduces new concepts and techniques to help him develop his talent. 

Henry recently entered a piece of artwork he titled, “There’s No Place Like Home,” in the Ohio VSA Art Expressions tour. He won third place in the youth category and went on to win the People’s Choice award! His art piece was purchased on opening day. (Photo at right.)

Henry feels confident that he has a future in the field of art, and so do we. His interpretations of musical productions from the Golden Age of Film invite his viewers to see the films from a new perspective. In his work, Henry highlights aspects of these films that go unnoticed by the untrained eye. His artwork is reminiscent of the techniques used by artists when creating the sets and characters for the films.

Henry is very passionate about his artwork! We often find him hard at work, surrounded by sketches, drawings, and three-dimensional renderings of props from famous movies.

Drs. Mackinaw-Koons and Murphy: Amy’s story illustrates several important strategies for helping individuals with autism find their “niche” or develop strengths no one realized they had. 

As psychologists, we talk with parents about being creative and persistent, as well as increasing their own tolerance for failed attempts and roadblocks. 

Many parents feel they’re entering unchartered waters when a child can’t succeed in the traditional activities they envisioned for their child. Amy’s point about “thinking outside the box” highlights this so well. Great talents go beyond those of star quarterbacks, valedictorians and head cheerleaders.

With individuals who have autism, it often helps to encourage the person to follow personal inclinations, passions – even restricted interests. In this way, the individual can start to build a skill set. 

Does your loved one have an amazing strength in rote memorization? Try a drama club! Memorizing lines from the script could be a great fit.

Does your child have a great love of animals? Consider volunteering with your child at a local pet shelter. In the process, you are helping your child develop important caretaking skills.

The concept of “signature strengths” is a good way to think about this approach. For Henry’s parents, carefully observing his personality and natural tendencies provided a good menu of opportunities. His parents identified strengths and began to add activities and opportunities that enriched the budding abilities they observed.

Most likely, you aren’t going to discover that your child suddenly possesses an amazing new skill or talent. Anyone who has a special talent will tell you that he or she didn’t arrive there by chance or without effort. Persistence and patience are important. Behavioral difficulties and anxieties may well arise around trying new things, and we encourage you to provide “gentle nudging” with lots of support and cheering for willingness to try.

Openness to opportunities, courage to try new and different things, and celebration of small successes are all so very important!

Parents and other caregivers must be willing to accept initial failures or even embarrassment if at first their loved one doesn’t fit the mold. Continue to advocate for your child – whatever his or her age – and encourage the development of the talent you have seen.

Just like any individual who shows a special gift or talent, the road to success is achieved through consistent trial and error and repeated opportunities for practice. 

Remember, we always get better at what we practice. You could ask Henry … but we hear he’s busy finishing another amazing drawing!

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