Weaving in Special Interest Areas Throughout the School Day (page 3)
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.
How Can SIAs be Incorporated at School?
Far from mere leisure activities, SIAs are the core of students with AS. As one boy emphatically declared, “Airplanes are who I am” (Winter-Messiers et al., 2007). Thus, it stands to reason that a teacher or parent who can access this powerful awareness can shape a student’s behavior. Integrating assigned tasks with SIAs increases the probability that the student will work hard to achieve his personal goals (Winter-Messiers et al., 2007). Begin by asking the student about her SIA, as assumptions can lead to errors. For example, a girl interested in baseball may not really care about playing baseball herself or attending games, but may have considerable knowledge of baseball statistics, players’ personal records or baseball uniforms. Understanding the SIA is critical. Parents are also an excellent information source.
Preferred assignment design: Encourage the student to infuse his SIA into an assignment. While teachers cannot redesign every assignment to fit an SIA, some tasks readily lend themselves to SIA adaptation, such as story problems, speeches, creative essays, free reading or Internet research.
Non-preferred assignment reward: Establish a “work/play” routine in which the student completes a portion of a non-preferred assignment to earn free time in which she may engage in an SIA-related activity. Offer time to read an SIA-related book or talk to staff about the SIA once the assignment, or a segment of it, is finished.
Positive behavioral consequence: Teachers can reward students’ appropriate behaviors by allowing access to their SIAs. For example, after 10 minutes of working without talking to his neighbor, a student could earn 2 minutes of time on an SIA website. Another student may learn to manage self-stimulating behavior, such as growling or hand flapping, by taking a sensory break from class to engage in a simple form of his SIA. For example, a child who collects dinosaurs could have one on his sensory break. Caution: A student should never be denied his SIA as a negative behavioral consequence. Telling a student that he cannot read about elevators this week because of negative behaviors severs him from his core passion, and the effects can be devastating. Work positively instead: “When you finish your Civil War reading assignment, I will listen to you talk about elevators for three minutes.”
Related work activities: Teachers and parents may work together to design a school-based activity connected to an SIA. For example, a girl who wants to be a chef may help the school cook design a menu, or a boy interested in play production could assist the drama teacher in organizing props. Students could also work with community experts, such as a photographer, architect or plumber, in their SIAs. In this way, students can learn invaluable skills and see first-hand how their SIAs translate into careers.
Motivation drives engagement. The most powerful motivator for these students is their SIA. They are highly capable of working hard—if that work comes through the SIA door. Let’s open this door while it is in our power to do so!
Asperger, H. (1991). Die ‘Autistischen Psychopathen’ im Kindesalter. In U. Frith (Ed. & Trans.), Autism and Asperger Syndrome (pp. 37-92). New York: Cambridge University Press. (Original work published in 1944.)
Attwood, T. (1998). Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Attwood, T. (2006). The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Attwood, T. (2003). Understanding and managing circumscribed interests. In M. Prior (Ed.), Learning and Behavior Problems in Asperger Syndrome, (pp. 126-147). New York: Guilford Press.
Kluth, P., & Schwarz, P. (2008). Just Give Him the Whale! Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
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, 28, 140-152.
Winter-Messiers, M.A., Herr, C.M., Wood, C.E., Brookes, A.P., Gates, M.M., Houston, T.L., & Tingstad, K.I. (2007). How far can Brian ride the Daylight 4449 Express? A strength-based model of Asperger Syndrome based on special interest areas. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 22, 67-79.
Reprinted with the permission of the Autism Society.
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