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The Value of Interests

Janet Myers, (Educational Psychologist at Portsmouth City Council) in partnership with Pierre and his family, writes about a young man who, as his mum describes, experienced severe communication and behaviour difficulties as a young child, and who has a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Pierre is now an engaging 24 year old graduate of the University of Portsmouth, graduating this year with a First Class Honours degree in Computer and Gaming Technology. Pierre has also gained an award for his work at University for the development of his own business, and he has recently embarked on an exciting new career in his chosen field. I think you will enjoy reading about his journey, which is enabling him to apply his unique set of early interests to live his professional and social life to the full.

The Value of Interests – Part 1

We often hear, and say, “It’s good to have interests”. Interests can evolve into hobbies, lead to the formation of friendships and even lead us into successful and rewarding careers. We are sometimes intrigued about others’ hobbies and jobs, asking, “How did you get into that?”
As an educational psychologist, I ask questions and carry out activities with pre-school and school age children, to discover their interests as part of exploring and identifying their skills and special educational needs. Some of the young people I meet are not able to communicate verbally when I meet them, and so I like to ask their families, and those working with them, to describe their interests to me.
Why is this important? Firstly, every child and young person is unique, and exploring their unique interests helps us to learn about what is giving them pleasure and stimulation, satisfaction and in some cases, comfort. I like to consider what they like to play with and how; what they like and choose to read or talk about; and which activities they like to carry out independently, with their families and friends. This helps us to gain an insight into their knowledge and skills, how they learn, and elements of learning they may find challenging.
The importance of family insights into the origins and nature of a young person’s interests, and their behaviour and interactions around their interests is an invaluable part of such exploration.
Some of the children I meet love to talk in detail about dinosaurs, planets or train mechanics, and perhaps list features of these topics we may never have heard of, sometimes in a very repetitive manner. This may lead us to wonder if perhaps this impressive, established knowledge and behaviour enables the child to feel a sense of certainty and comfort in what may otherwise seem to be a confusing world to that child. This behaviour may also lead us to wonder if that child experiences satisfaction, achievement, pride and self-confidence due to his or her ability to share this specific knowledge.
Gaining an insight into a young person’s interests can often lead to the development of helpful interventions which incorporate their unique interests to enable them to engage in activities to develop, for example, language and communication skills, and learning and social interaction skills. Such interventions are more likely to appeal to our young people, and stimulate their engagement, both at home and in education settings.
Recognition of specific areas of interest is also important in terms of drawing attention to the value of providing focused opportunities for young people to continue to develop and apply these unique interests and associated skills as they progress through life. We would all of course like our young people to continue to experience pleasure and to reach their potential.

Part 2 – Pierre

As an educational psychologist, the insights provided by a young person’s family, and those working closely with that young person, form a vital part in identifying their skills and special educational needs. Exploration of a young person’s specific and sometimes intense interests can lead to the development of opportunities to enable them to engage in and enjoy learning and interacting with others, and to take steps towards reaching their potential.
I would now like to talk about an engaging 24 year old young man, Pierre, who has experienced challenges associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and who has developed his own unique interests and skills with the support of his family, and a range of individuals linked to his education and community. Pierre completed his studies at Portsmouth University this year, gaining a First Class Honours degree in Computer and Gaming Technology. Whilst carrying out his degree, he also set up his own business and has gained professional recognition and admiration for doing so. Pierre is now settling into his new career, working for Babcock International to design training media for the Royal Navy, in a position which places high value on his achievements and potential. Pierre has also practiced as a musician and silversmith.
I met with Pierre and his mum, Barbara, to reflect on Pierre’s early life experiences and to explore the journey they have taken, which has led to the development of his unique and impressive range of skills and achievements.
Like many young people I work with, Pierre experienced severe communication and behaviour difficulties as a young child, associated with his diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Initially, whilst the family lived in Hertfordshire, Barbara recognised that Pierre was experiencing significant difficulties related to development of speech and language skills in particular. Barbara had professional knowledge and experience of child development, and she ultimately recognised that Pierre’s general development was following an atypical path. In fact, Barbara felt that Pierre was ‘a complete enigma’.
For example, around the age of 3 years, Pierre’s parents noted that he had an evident obsession with clocks and church bells. Although Pierre does not recall his very early experiences, Barbara described how he loved to watch the mechanical movements of the clock elements, specifically, the spinning cogs and the hand movements. Pierre’s fascination with mechanics was also influenced by his visits to his grandfather’s factory in France, in which metal sheeting was transformed into winches. Pierre reflected that during his visits, he was particularly impressed by the calibre of the hardware and the scale of the facility.

Pierre’s first holiday memory is of visiting a wind farm on Gran Canaria, around the age of 4 years. Barbara laughed as she described the workers at the wind farm looking at the family with curiosity, probably wondering why they chose to stand looking at turbines whilst being blasted by the hot, desert sand, as opposed to relaxing on the beach. Pierre also loved to play with Lego around this time, and he focused upon building models of the Titanic, having watched the film repeatedly. Pierre recalled his fascination with the engine room scene during our interview, particularly with the movements of the pistons as they carried out their complex functions.
Barbara also recalled that Pierre differed from his peers in terms of his fascination with the Titanic, as opposed to Thomas the Tank Engine. Again, like many of the children I meet, factual subject matter was more appealing to Pierre at this time, with Barbara noting he seemed to ‘crave facts’. During our interview, Pierre himself stated that although he liked trains, the idea of a talking train did not interest him. Recognising his son’s significant interests, and the value of nurturing his development, Pierre’s dad often took him to visit the HMS Belfast when he was a little boy, to help him to further develop his interests and knowledge, and of course, have a great time together!
Barbara also described how Pierre was obsessed by his dad playing games on his Nintendo 64 console around the age of 4. Although Pierre tried to play the games himself, he became very frustrated as his motor co-ordination difficulties prevented him from doing so. In retrospect, Pierre thinks it might have been the ‘leisure factors’ of the games that appealed to his younger self.

Pierre’s experiences of Early Years education in Hertfordshire were variable. Barbara recalls that although playgroups were difficult experiences for Pierre, his Nursery experience was positive. When Pierre started school in the Reception year, he gained individual support to enable him to engage in activities and to further develop his skills. However, Pierre experienced significant difficulties and Barbara remembers he couldn’t cope with this particular environment, as he appeared overwhelmed by the sensory stimulation around him. Pierre recalls these experiences himself and during interview, he described how uncomfortable he felt at that time, saying he tended to ‘feel stuff’. Barbara added that Pierre was, and is ‘a very visual person’, and perhaps during his early years, the typically active, noisy and vibrant visual environment of the Reception class was over stimulating for him. Consequently, Barbara decided to home educate Pierre for 6 months, and she recalls that at home, Pierre was smiling and making progress with learning.
Pierre went on to attend a primary school for children with moderate learning difficulties and then when the family moved to Portsmouth, he attended another primary school for young people with special educational needs. Pierre described how these environments helped him to feel comfortable as the classes were calm, and quiet, partly due to the smaller number of children within them. Pierre also felt that having access to areas in which he could work on his own was helpful.
Throughout his time in school, Barbara noted that despite his communication difficulties, Pierre was very academically talented. He had an extraordinary memory and he excelled in subjects with a focus upon number skills, including maths and science. Pierre continued to prefer books with facts and information rather than fiction, and at the age of 7, he memorised the Periodic Table of Elements.
Pierre’s visual processing skills also continued to flourish. He developed the ability to observe, retain and recall the images of national flags, and positions of his French neighbours’ houses, producing detailed maps with great accuracy. Pierre thinks that his interest in maps was stimulated by watching the computer game series, ‘The Legend of Zelda’, telling me how he was inspired by the structure of the games’ levels and how they linked together. Pierre’s interest and skills in terms of mapping have subsequently enabled him to excel in games design, and he described how his experience playing Minecraft at the age of 16 informed his work during his GCSE Art course.
Pierre’s significant literacy difficulties were identified whilst at primary school and he reflects that this aspect of learning was ‘a drag’. However, he persevered with support, and his mum thinks that being a confident young man has helped Pierre to progress at times of challenge at several points in his life. Further assessment of Pierre’s skills and needs in school led to identification of outstanding skills in relation to pattern detection and testing, and visual discrimination. Pierre recalls thinking at the time, “This is probably something I can do that they can’t do!”

When Pierre was due to transfer to secondary school, his mum took him to view his local mainstream catchment school in addition to a secondary school for young people with special educational needs, so that he would be involved in making this important decision. Pierre recalls clearly feeling overwhelmed by the ‘sea of children’ moving around the local school when the end of lesson bell rang. Pierre was also daunted by the size of the site and ultimately, the family decided the school for young people with special educational needs would be more suitable for him.
I asked Pierre if feeling comfortable within his environment helped him to feel ready to learn. Pierre stated that for him, “this was the first priority”. Pierre also thinks that the structured approaches provided by his secondary school were extremely helpful for him, and having his timetable planned in advance helped him to learn a lot more.
At secondary school, a helpful teacher recognised Pierre’s distinct interests and outstanding skills, and she arranged for him to have additional maths and careers opportunities. This included setting up a school company to make and sell candles, with Pierre given the position of Marketing Director. The same teacher enabled Pierre to take on the informal position of Lab Technician in the school when he was 16-17 years old, for his work experience placement. This position was sustained for a day each week when Pierre subsequently attended College.
The role was a valuable experience for Pierre, as this particular environment became ‘his domain’. Pierre was able to develop a range of relevant skills with teachers who understood his needs and potential, that would contribute to his future learning opportunities. As an alternative to a salary, the school included Pierre on a trip to the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, which is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. Pierre explained the nature of the machine during our interview, again demonstrating his incredible knowledge and understanding of a subject far in advance of my own capabilities.
Pierre achieved GCSEs at school, including Maths, Science and Art, before starting to study for his BTEC IT, Games and Interactive Systems qualification at St Vincent’s College in Gosport, following a period of transition between the two settings.
Reviewing our interview, I think the focused, curious, open minded and positive attention given to Pierre’s specific interests over time by his family, teachers and community, has enabled Pierre to develop and demonstrate a wide range of admirable life and learning skills. Next time, I will describe how Pierre’s interests and skills have been nurtured at College and University, leading to a professional position he is currently enjoying a great deal.

Part 3 – Pierre continued..

24 year old Pierre, who has a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, and his mum, Barbara, continued our interview by describing Pierre’s experiences, following his secondary special school education. Pierre achieved GCSEs in school including Maths, Science and Art before starting to study for his BTEC IT, Games and Interactive Systems qualification at St Vincent’s College in Gosport, following a period of transition between the two settings.

Pierre received additional support from a Support Assistant throughout his first year at College, and during our interview, he recalled that he needed specific help with literacy skills, particularly spelling, and formulating and structuring answers in written form, for his assignments.
Pierre really enjoyed the experience of developing independence through his College placement, and by the second year, he no longer required additional support. Pierre described how he enjoyed the freedom of College compared to school, and how he learned more about how people behave. During his second year, Pierre was also making friends with his fellow course members. His development of friendships was a gradual process in terms of building online contact initially, to going out socially at a later stage. Pierre recalls that although he was ‘on the edge’ of the group, he felt very much a part of it at that time.
Throughout his time at College, Pierre’s marked interest in the visual aspects of his environment continued to develop. His skilled, intricate drawings reflected his early interest in fine detail and balance, and in addition to leading to the aforementioned GCSE in Art, his skills in this area also contributed positively to the design elements within his BTEC course. Pierre also completed his AS and A2 Graphics course whilst at College.

Pierre’s previously described early fascination with the mechanical aspects of machinery also led to achievement and fulfilment in the field of silversmith work. His interest in this particular field was initiated by a chance encounter as a teenager, during an open house art trail event in Portsmouth. Pierre and Barbara met Sharon, a professional silversmith, as she displayed her work and demonstrated her working methods to members of the public during this event. Pierre was fascinated by the tools and equipment used by Sharon, and following the event, Sharon taught Pierre how to develop skills in this area too! Pierre enjoyed the creative aspects of silversmith work, creating pieces including a spoon, in addition to jewellery.
Pierre now has his own silversmithing Hallmark, and during our interview, Barbara wore a beautiful silver pendant with evident pride, designed and created by Pierre. Barbara stressed the importance of recognising the potential of such chance encounters with people and organisations who ‘get’ the positive aspects of individuals who may present with different interests, skills and needs, and who are open to, and who enjoy developing common interests together.

In terms of our children, I think this is an important point to consider further…. how can we help our young people to develop their interests and skills through experiences in addition to those they may encounter in school? Perhaps we have friends, colleagues or members of our communities who have skills and interests that would appeal to our children. Additional activities can often lead to discoveries about what makes our children feel stimulated, happy and inspired. These discoveries can also lead to unexpected pathways towards fulfilment both socially, and in terms of learning and achievement.
Pierre completed his BTEC with flying colours, which led to a place on a degree course at Portsmouth University. Pierre continued to thrive in relation to development of his interests, knowledge and skills, and he described how University was a different experience in terms of enabling him to focus and specialise in a specific area he had chosen. He was able to revisit and expand his programming ability through focused teaching at University, which, he recalls, ‘was an important step.’ Prior to gaining this specialist teaching, Pierre recalls his knowledge of game development was limited, as he had had no-one with the relevant knowledge to talk to whilst at school.
Reflecting further on the origin of his interest in computer programming, Pierre thinks that his initial interest was stimulated when he started to question how he could modify the building blocks in Minecraft as a teenager. Pierre watched YouTube videos to learn how to access the Minecraft codes and how to adapt them. This leads me to think again in more detail about the nature of our young peoples’ specific interests. What is it in particular that leads to such a deep level of interest in one specific area? What skills are they learning, applying and developing, and can these skills be nurtured in additional contexts?
The experience of going deeper into his field of interest during his degree studies was a rewarding experience for Pierre. Although his writing speed was slower than that of other students, Pierre recalls that he ‘just got on with it’. Pierre was able to use his Disabled Student Allowance to obtain specialist software which read out the material he had himself written, to enable him to proof read and edit his work, and this helped him enormously.

Pierre also continued to develop his social experiences and friendships by taking full advantage of the University societies promoted at the start of the first term. As Pierre’s workload was manageable during his first year, he enjoyed being a member of the fencing, archery and real ale societies. However, as his course work became more demanding, he decided to take a break in order to focus on his studies.
Pierre was asked to carry out a presentation to third year psychology students at Portsmouth University, about how he had developed his own tools to enable him to cope with the challenges he sometimes encountered in terms of being a student with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Pierre rose to the challenge and his clear presentation was highly valued by attendees.
Whilst at university, Pierre also received the ‘Self-employed Placement of the Year’, award from the Business Development organisation, Innovation Space. Pierre gained this award due to successfully developing his own game App during his self-employed placement, as gaming and coding were, he stated, his ‘first love’. Pierre even created the music to accompany the visuals for the App. At the time of our interview, Pierre was interested in thinking ahead to the needs of gamers as opposed to creating the games themselves, due to his understanding of the competition within this genre. However, following successful completion of a degree study unit in conjunction with the Royal Navy, and subsequently completing his degree at an excellent level, Pierre has recently accepted a position with this organisation and I hear he is thriving in his new role.

It was clear from our conversation that Pierre has developed an incredible awareness of what he is learning, how, and why, and the implications of his various professional opportunities. He has also continued to develop his friendships, and he now has a busy social life. By this time, I’m sure you are in awe of Pierre, and how his initial range of interests have been recognised and nurtured, to enable him to live a fulfilling and enjoyable life. I certainly am.


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