Your Autistic Student’s Specialized Interest:
Don’t Lose it, Use it.
Some professionals have tried to put on extinction, or eliminate, an autistic student’s “obsessions” or specialized interests. Perhaps they believed that the interest interfered with learning. Maybe they feared it might lead to ostracization or bullying from peers. Possibly, they just didn’t think that it could lead to a future job, so they decided to get rid of it.
You can probably imagine how that worked out.
Autistic students love what they love (don’t we all?) but often with an intensity rarely seen in the typical population.
That doesn’t mean we should try to stomp it out.
Instead, let’s work with our students’ interest to motivate them. Instead of saying, “No dinosaurs at school,” say, “Dinosaur Time is the 5 minutes between Math and Recess.” Instead of banning Lego bricks in the classroom, let your Lego-loving student earn bricks to play with later. You can drop a brick at a time into a clear container when you see him on-task and working well, and by the end of the morning he will have a few minutes to play with the Legos he earned. (Make sure he understands these are classroom Legos, not his to take home. He is earning the right to build with them, not to keep them.)
If your student has a special character or super hero that she admires, consider using that character to give directions or work and study tips. Advice that the child resists or ignores when the teacher reminds her, suddenly becomes important when Wonder Woman gives the same advice. You can write your own Social Stories following Carol Gray’s guidelines.
Also, check out Elisa Gagnon and Brenda Smith Myles’ The Power Card Strategy 2.0: Using Special Interests to Motivate Children and Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder, here.
Catlaina Vrana wrote an article for Autism Resources and Community (ARC) and STAGES Learning Materials called “Leveraging Special Interests to Help Children with Autism: An Autistic Person Shares Her Experiences.” In it she cited a study done by Winter-Messiers (2007) that showed that when autistic children talked about their special interests, their behavior, communication and social and emotional skills improved.
Who would have thought that by letting our students go on about what interests them, (instead of using the moment to try to teach them the signs that a listener is bored,) we are actually helping them improve in other areas? Find the Winter-Messiers paper here.
Vrana also shares ideas from the Texas Statewide Leadership for Autism, recommending that teachers use their students Special Interest Areas (SIA) by (1) identifying the SIA, (2) applying the SIA into various forms across teaching areas, and (3) updating the list of SIAs and using several of them.
You’ll find the National Autistic Society’s ideas about using SIAs in the classroom, including the use of an educational Minecraft game, here.
In addition, Vrana shares her own personal interests (I share at least one of them)…but you’ll have to read her article to find out more.
Finally, check out this article that Mary Ann Winter-Messiers and Cynthia M. Herr wrote for Interactive Autism Network: Linking the Autism Community and Researchers (IAN): “Dinosaurs 24/7: Understanding the Special Interests of Children with Asperger’s.” The authors examined (a) categories of SIAs, (b) the fusion of SIAs and identity, (c) gender differences in SIAs, (d) parents’ knowledge about and feelings towards SIAs, (e) peers’ perceptions of SIAs and how those perceptions negatively affect children and youth with Asperger’s, and (f) the impact of SIAs on classic Asperger’s deficits.
They learned that students on the spectrum can achieve far beyond expectations when they are allowed to follow their passions and be involved in their special interests, and concluded with the following: “Over fifty years ago, Hans Asperger (1991/1944) already knew what we are just coming to see: special interests are the key to fulfillment and maximized potential in children and youth with Asperger’s Syndrome. We can find reason to hope for significant and meaningful futures for children with Asperger’s in his stirring words that call so clearly to us today:
Able autistic individuals can rise to eminent positions and perform with such outstanding success that one may even conclude that only such people are capable of certain achievements. It is as if they had compensatory ability to counter-balance their deficiencies. Their unswerving determination and penetrating intellectual powers, part of their spontaneous and original mental activity, their narrowness and single-mindedness, as manifested in their special interests, can be immensely valuable and can lead to outstanding achievements in their chosen areas.” ~Hans Asperger
Read the entire, excellent article here.
As we continue to learn more and more about autism and specialized interests, let’s remember to respect our students’ interests, even when we don’t understand or share the same interests ourselves. The world is full of so many unique perspectives and passions. Wouldn’t it be a boring place if we were all interested in the same things?