Students with Autism: Take Advantage of Special Interests and Strengths

Often caregivers, educators, and parents are not sure what is the best way to reach and help students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or Asperger’s syndrome. By taking advantage on a student’s special interest area (SIA) it allows them to interact with this student that in no other way would be possible. The child’s special interests can be integrated effectively into home, school, and community activities. Over fifty years ago, Hans Asperger (1991/1944) already knew that special interests are the key to fulfillment and maximized potential in children and youth with Asperger’s syndrome (AS).

Play on your child’s special interest for family outings, in reading materials, craft projects, play date activities, summer or school break activities. Share with his teachers his favourite topic and discuss ways to accommodate his special interest in his daily school work and home assignments.

It is thought that over 90% of individuals with Asperger’s syndrome have deep, consuming obsessions/facinations. Parents of students with autism will often tell you that their child has special interests that captivate them above all else. Therefore, why not capitalize of this by tapping into the strength and interests of students with autism to help them learn and cope with their daily challenges and learn about new, but related fields? The goal might be, if it is possible, for these children to broaden their field of interests and be happy to learn about new things so they can feel comfortable and competent in all their classes.  By using their incredible knowledge in one area, the adults in their lives can gently steer them to other areas.

Impact of Special Interest Areas for Students with Autism

An exploratory study started in 2005 to evaluate the impact of special interest areas (SIAs) on children and youth with Asperger’s, as well as on their families, defined SIAs as those passions that capture the mind, heart, time, and attention of individuals with Asperger’s, providing the lens through which they view the world. The findings of this study support greatly the use of special interest areas to engage children and youth with Asperger’s. The study is by Winter-Messiers, M. A. (2007). From Tarantulas to Toilet Brushes: Understanding the Special Interest Areas of Children and Youth With Asperger Syndrome. Remedial and Special Education.

Based on the findings in this study, the researcher created a strength-based model of AS and special interests that emphasizes the critical need for teachers to understand and value the special interests of these students and the impact on their families.

The following are a few of Winter-Messiers conclusions based on their study:

  • Though participants’ self-images apart from their SIAs were strongly negative, we found that when they were involved in activities related to their SIAs, they felt more positive about themselves.
  • Traditionally, children and youth with Asperger’s exhibit deficits in the areas of language, social communication, emotions, and problems with sensory stimuli and fine motor activities. However, we found that these deficits were diminished when participants were engaged in their SIAs.
  • The children and youth with Aspergers said that their SIAs were often seen as socially unacceptable, and their peers lacked understanding and interest in the participants’ SIAs.

Students with Autism: Take Advantage of Special Interests and StrengthsUse SIAs To Introduce New Learning Experiences

As we can see the special interests areas for these individuals is part of who they are. Caregivers and educators should reach out and connect with these children by using the child’s fascination with a topic but gradually guide them to explore new areas of learning. For example, a child who is only interested in dogs can be edged on to learn about the daily care, food requirements, and exercise needed to keep these animals in optimum health. Then his own daily hygiene, food, and physical exercise requirements can be incorporated in the discussion.

When the animal has to go to the vet would be a good time to discuss the many interesting jobs available to individuals who have a keen interest in animals.  This could lead to a discussion on the many careers in the medical fields.  Then once again show the similarity in keeping his dog healthy to going to his family doctor, dentist, and other health care professionals.

To help with his social interactions you could join a dog club or take a dog obedience class. Some cities even have parks or cafés only for dogs and their owners. Senior citizens’ nursing homes, children’s wards in hospitals, and drop in centers for people with mental illness welcome dogs and their masters for visits.

To see the relationship between work and earning money, and understanding the importance of choosing a field of work you love, you could arrange for your growing youth with special interests to channel his strengths in odd jobs.  Families unable to exercise their dogs often hire others to take their dogs out or families who go away on vacation need dog sitters, therefore this could be a good lesson in entrepreneurship for your teen with special needs.

Use Areas of Expertise to Benefit Others

One mom during one of our Tweetchats on The Coffee Klatch  about students with autism mentioned her children’s incredible knowledge in certain fields. This expertise brought them to do volunteer work that got them to use their areas of expertise to benefit others. This could also happen in a school setting where your child’s special interest could make him a likely student to help other students with a project, start a noon hour club on this particular topic, or write about his SIA for the school paper.

Some parents tweeted that to motivate their child for completing or trying less desirable activities such as chores or to entice children to engage in social activities with the family, they use time to immerse themselves in their SIA as a reward.  Caregivers find that SIA’s are also powerful motivators to get the child to willingly do necessary daily living activities such as bathing, doing physical activity, going to the dentist, shopping…  SIAs allow a child with a way to relax, de-stress, and cope with his surroundings, therefore after school time was given for SIA. Similar tactics could be used at school also.

Why  Do Teachers Try To Broaden Your Child’s Interests?

Most teachers have the best interest of their students as their principal motivator. You all know how kids are quick to comment and sometimes make cruel remarks about other students. In many primary and elementary schools the same students are together in each grade; therefore, by the third of fourth grade many of your child’s peers will have grown tired of hearing your child talk incessantly about his SIA. Unfortunately they are most likely going to make unpleasant comments about this to your child, to the class, and to their new teacher. Your child’s teacher hopes to prevent this from happening by encouraging your child to broaden his interests.

When the students are asked to do research on certain topics, do a book report or even a craft project by the third or fourth grades your child’s peers will be much more motivated to listen to or read  your child’s presentation or paper if it is on a NEW topic. Needless to say, group projects or work with a classmate, which is often the norm these days, will not always be on your child’s SIA.

Teachers have strict learning outcomes to be reached each year by their students. If parents want their child’s teacher to allow most of their child’s learning to be centered on his SIA this will probably have to be formally accepted and approved along the same lines as an IEP.

If only a few areas of learning are going to be change, then teachers can insert the SIA effectively and appropriately into the curriculum and the learning outcomes can still be met. By working together, your child’s teachers can integrate SIAs into most courses, including languages, reading, writing, spelling, math, science, history, art …

Special Interest Areas Often Lead to Careers

One of the characteristics of individuals with Aspergers  as first described by Kanner (1943) is an obsessive interest, extreme fascination and preoccupation. These traits can be very helpful in the work world. Very early on, instill in your child that many adults have used their personal SIA’s to develop careers. And the very trait that might be giving him a hard time at school and with his peers can possibly be his source of income and fulfillment as an adult.The Way I See It, COLLECTOR's EDITION

Read Dr. Temple Grandin’s book The Way I See It : A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s (2011) and share it with your growing youth because she is one of the best examples of how SIA’s can materialize in a rewarding career. Dr. Grandin is an associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Her passion for cattle has prepared the way for her career as an expert designer and consultant in humane cattle management and slaughter techniques. She is also a world famous lecturer and author.

Parents, take heart, like Hans Asperger stated fifty years ago: “Able autistic individuals can rise to eminent positions and perform with such outstanding success… 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.” 


Just Give Him the Whale: 20 Ways to Use Fascinations, Areas of Expertise, and Strengths to Support Students with AutismSee Also Book reviews:

READ Also:
Interview Barry M. Prizant, PhD Author of  Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism 

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