Weaving in Special Interest Areas Throughout the School Day
My 12-year-old son, whose passion is aviation and who has Asperger Syndrome (AS), lay on the floor of the family room groaning and sighing bitterly. “This assignment is mind-numbingly boring! I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do! I HATE SCHOOL!” He was angry about the perceived injustice done to him. How dare the teacher assign a speech and poster about a family member?
Foreseeing an ensuing meltdown, I was on the verge of conceding that we would try again tomorrow when an idea struck me. “I have a box of your grandfather’s WWII flight memorabilia. Would you like to see it?” My son sat straight up. “Wow! That would be super!” I quickly retrieved the box, opened it and stood back to watch what I knew was coming. “A WWII air force base flight manual! Look, his insignia and wings! Oh, cool, a canteen menu—and here are letters from his pilot buddies!” He moved quickly around the room. “I can do my speech on Papa [his grandfather]! I will have the best project! I will write and write—my mind is racing with ideas! I can’t wait to start!” In seconds, the assignment—and my son—were transformed. What made the difference? My son’s special interest area is aviation.
What is a Special Interest Area?
Special interest areas (SIAs) are “those passions that capture the mind, heart, time and attention of individuals with AS, providing the lens through which they view the world” (Winter-Messiers, 2007). They differ from the hobbies of typical children in the amount of time, thought and focus children with AS give them, usually to the exclusion of other interests and activities. Examples of SIAs range from Thomas the Tank Engine to storms to vampires (Winter-Messiers, 2007) to toilets (Attwood, 2006). Parents and teachers often see SIAs as annoying, socially harmful activities, and seek to diminish students’ involvement in them (Attwood, 1998). This is revealed in our tendency to refer to SIAs as “obsessions” (Kluth & Schwarz, 2008), rather than the more respectful “fascinations” or “passions.” Hans Asperger (1944/1991), however, was the first to observe the potential of SIAs: “A special interest enables [those with AS] to achieve quite extraordinary levels of performance in a certain area” (p. 45).
Why are SIAs Important?
SIAs are the best-kept secret for motivating students with AS. This untapped gold mine of drive and passion lies within students, and the challenge for parents and teachers is discerning how best to tap into the students’ reserves of passion for saxophones, frogs, fairies or Disney films (Winter-Messiers, 2007). The SIA is so intensely important to a student with AS that she is utterly compelled to be involved with the interest and to learn more about it, a drive that Attwood (2003) perceives as “the almost insatiable thirst for access to the interest” (p. 131). This thirst should be used to change, motivate, inspire and reward students with AS.
Reprinted with the permission of the Autism Society.
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