It doesn’t seem quite right that a 41-year-old mom should know everything about a children’s book series called Ranger’s Apprentice, but I do. I know every title in this 11-part series by John Flanagan. I can recite character lists, the names of all the horses ever ridden by a Ranger (a kind of a medieval spy) and could probably even label a map of the nations surrounding Araluen, the setting of the books. I also know that there is a companion series called Brotherband Chronicles (Bravo Mr Flanagan!)
Where does this wealth of useful information come from, you ask? The source of all things “RA” is my 13 year old daughter, Ashlyn, who currently eats, drinks, breathes and dreams Ranger’s Apprentice. She speaks of little else and even manages to link completely unrelated topics of conversation to it. For instance, in taking a simple tally of who wants tea or coffee, we all end up knowing that coffee is the favourite drink of Rangers.
A Common Trait of Aspergers
This type of fixation is a common Aspergers (Autism Spectrum Disorder) trait. Besides the social and communication struggles a child with Aspergers might have, another defining characteristic of the disorder is a restricted range of interests and behaviours. This may involve “collecting things or having a fascination with a certain topic such as cars, trucks, trains, dinosaurs, computers, planets or science” (Dr Tony Attwood).
Special Interest Areas have benefits
There are benefits to this special interest characteristic of our children. Foremost, immersing themselves in their pet topic can help them relax. If Ashlyn is upset, all I have to do is ask her a question about Ranger’s Apprentice and she immediately switches over into her happy, animated RA mode. It can also be used as a motivation tool (Ashlyn just received book 9 as an incentive) or even to develop weak skill areas. An example of the latter might be a parent whose child loves cars teaching numeracy skills by counting cars.
For some, their topic of interest becomes an area of speciality in later life and can lead to very successful careers. I recently read of a young man with Aspergers called Clay Marzo, who has become one of the most celebrated surfers in the world, with a national surfing title and many Hawaiian titles under his belt. From an extremely young age, the ocean and surfing were his passion. His mother says: “It got to the point where he’d only come out of the ocean to eat.”
Drawing Attention to their Differences
However, these narrow interest areas can also be problematic. Speaking endlessly on one topic to their classmates is one of the ways Aspergers kids set themselves apart and get labelled as ‘different’. As parents we need to coach them on when it is okay to expound on their interests. This needs to be repeated often (one book I read suggested that it take the form of clear, concise, written rules). Even then, it might prove difficult for the child to restrain themselves. I thought I had got the point of not bombarding friends with RA information across rather well, until I happened to chat to Ashlyn’s classmate and discovered that she also knew coffee was the ranger’s favourite drink!
My struggles as an Aspergers Mom
For me, this has been a rather challenging parenting area, and sometimes I feel that I don’t do all that well at it. I struggle to maintain the balance of accepting and embracing Ashlyn and her passions, while at the same time trying to broaden her outlook and conversational topics. Something that has worked fairly well in our house is the guideline that for every one thing Ashlyn says about Ranger’s Apprentice, she also has to tell us something else about her day.
I also struggle to shield my older daughter from the constant RA barrage. Teenagers are not known for their endless patience reserves, especially for younger siblings who sound a bit like a stuck record. On certain days this can lead to frustration and conflict.
One thing is sure though. This special interest area is an important and unique part of our child and as parents we need to accept that, even as we try to manage some of the slightly negative behaviour. A quote by an Asperger’s teen drives this home:
“Can you imagine having only a few things that interest you, and then having that forbidden from you?”
If any of you can think of a career related to Mr Flanagan’s book series please let me know! I’d also love to hear from other parents—what are your struggles and how do you manage this aspect of your child?