Harnessing the power of intense interests: MJ meets StarWars

For the last couple of months H has been fascinated with Michael Jackson. He began with Thriller and Smooth Criminal, but has moved on to broaden his tastes. He loves the messages: Heal the World and Black or White. While I have never been a huge MJ fan – it is delightful to be along for the ride of my child’s discovery. I am seeing/hearing this music in a whole new way – a fresh view because of my child’s perspective and experience…

I am absolutely loving watching my boy dance to Michael Jackson. I never would have guessed this would be his latest intense interest – but I am ready to support him in it! What I have learned from observing H with his interests is that these offer an entry point into connecting with him and also for learning and experiencing a whole new range of skills.

Our lives can be so busy and complicated, but we try to keep things as simple as possible. Connecting with our son, building relationships, and supporting the development of his social cognition; these are the things that are important. We are looking for ways to help him build his areas of intense interest into areas of skill and strength and subsequently we work to broaden those interests by linking them through common themes to new and novel stuff (sometimes only by the thinnest thread of logic).

H has been working on learning the dance moves… and learning the words to the songs, neither of which come easily or without immense effort. He has been watching and learning and reading, and now he is going to put his MJ knowledge to use in a school project, where he has to research and write an early biography of someone famous before taking on the writing of his own.

Lately he has taken to doing just a few more dances for us before he goes to bed. He is completely charming doing his moves in his pajamas after his bath: often with the addition of a trench-type coat, a fedora, gloves, or a leather jacket.

Yes… these moments are spectacular – nourishing me after a rather long grueling week! This is one of the amazing things about my child: he can abandon all else and focus on his interest with an intensity that I admire and respect. This is one of the amazing things about my child and many others on the autism spectrum: the ability to focus on specific interests and develop knowledge well beyond the typical.

H may not grow up to be a famous dancer… and really – that is not the point!  We will continue to cheer him on from the front row of the living-room stage – with the conviction that the ability to focus on a subject of intense interest builds the kind of skill that will help him find his own way in the future. And in the meantime, his interests – whether they are Lego, Science Fiction, Retro Pop Culture, Magic, or MJ – give him joy, a sense of identity, a reprieve from the struggle of the social world, and simply put… a positive quality of life.


30 Days of Autism is a project designed to fight stigma, promote civil rights, and increase understanding and acceptance for those who process and experience the world differently.

©Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism (2011)   

About Leah Kelley, Ed.D.

Leah Kelley, M.Ed, Ed.D., Writer, Consultant, Activist, Speaker, and Educator, working with Teacher Candidates at UBC. Authors blog: 30 Days of Autism. Projects support social understanding, Neurodiversity paradigm, Disability Justice, and connecting Disability Studies in Education(DSE)to Educational Practice. Twitter: @leah_kelley Facebook: 30 Days of Autism: Leah Kelley
This entry was posted in Autism, Dance, executive function, retro pop culture, Star Wars, The joy of dance and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Harnessing the power of intense interests: MJ meets StarWars

  1. sarasiobhan says:

    Aww.. you’ve captured this perfectly… I so agree. I think some of LB’s real breakthroughs recently have come because of his complete love for all things Eddie Stobart. I love it!


  2. Zaiene says:

    One of the things I always find inspiring about your entries is the way you accept how your son and students are and see their quirks as opportunities and strengths rather than challenges. Even when you are feeling tired or overwhelmed, you seem to approach people with a desire to develop rather than change them. I think this is actually very rare and very hard to do. Sometimes I look at a class of students I’m teaching for the day and wonder why I’m spending so much effort making sure they are sitting quietly. I know that in many ways the ability to be able behave in focused and conforming ways does make it easier to get on in life – and makes it more possible to teach and for others to learn than if students are being disruptive. However, I often wish we taught our students less by trying to make them conform and more by working with their strengths and interests – and by seeing more of their behaviours as strengths and opportunities rather than problems. I really admire the way you do that.


  3. My daughter, who isn’t on the spectrum, but dances in it’s shadows, has very extreme special interests that lasts anywhere from 6 months to 3 yrs. MJ was one of them for the better part of 2 yrs. It went from that to Green Day, go figure that one out. lol


  4. Trish Kelley says:

    Leah you continue to amaze me with your insight and help me understand. You are doing us all a service.


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  6. Pingback: Geek Mythology: You don’t know the power of… acceptance! | Thirty Days of Autism

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