Engaging the Power of Interests

Written By Kristie Patten Koenig and Lauren Hough Williams

NYC Subways
Bearded dragons
King Tut
Shrubbery
18th century architecture
Power lines
Ukuleles
Zip codes

Just a few of the topics I now know a great deal about thanks to individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).  This tendency towards unique, focused areas of interest is one of the hallmarks of individuals on the autism spectrum; however, it also touches on a vigorously debated issue. While many professionals in the field see the potential of preferred interests for individuals establishing social connections and developing feelings of competence, others argue that these interests have a negative impact on an individual’s adaptive behavior, even undermining their social success. Some educational professionals go so far as to insist that students not engage in their special interests in the classroom for fear of it having a negative impact on their learning and interactions. I’ve even been to Kindergarten classrooms where I’m met with a “This is a train free zone” sign on the door.

Historically, the autism literature has referred to the preferred interests of individuals with ASD negatively as “restricted,” “perseverative,” “circumscribed,” and “non-functional interests.” These terms are consistent with the traditional view that preferred interests are issues that need to be extinguished. It is often the intense manner in which the individuals with ASD engage in these interests that researchers have labeled as problematic. Some educators also argue that the subject matter of the interests is odd, atypical, or not age-appropriate.

Taking the lead from self-advocates on the spectrum, the autism field is making an important shift away from this deficit-focused perspective.  The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a leading group of adults on the spectrum (ASAN, 2011) reconceptualizes special interests as ‘‘narrow but deep,’’ with individuals often engaging in these interests for long periods of time. Professionals are following suit.  We are changing our language from “restricted interests” to “special interest areas,” exploring the benefits of incorporating these interests, and arguing that these interests are potential strengths and that using these interests, rather than discouraging them, can lead to better outcomes.

In line with this shift, here are three different ways educators supporting students with ASD can incorporate preferred interests into their classrooms:

1) Incorporate elements of the preferred interest into an activity or content area

Teachers and therapists — think about how to work the characters, language, and visuals related to your students’ interests into your classroom content or therapeutic activities. If you are doing a read aloud about a character who has to push through a tough situation, draw a comparison to Henry in Thomas and Friends™ who needs to “just keep puffing” even when things are hard. If you are a therapist encouraging students to write in cursive rather than the more laborious print, describe cursive as “going express” rather than “taking the local” when trying to engage your transportation enthusiasts. Use enticing visuals of a student’s interest to clarify academic concepts, rebranding the traditional “brainstorming, drafting, editing” writing process as “prototyping, beta-testing, and debugging” to tap into your tech-savvy kids’ passions.

2) Find and leverage the “hidden talent” in how the student engages with his/her preferred interest

Take the time to really explore how your student engages with their preferred interest, and you may be able to identify strengths in your student that had been previously overlooked. Does your student repetitively write lists of the presidents and their years in office? Maybe this shows a strength in ordering and ranking or an impressive stamina for writing. He might benefit from social studies lessons based around timelines or be the perfect data-recorder during a math activity. If your student likes to Google images of antique cars, she could be demonstrating that she has strong Internet search skills and could be a leader in a group research project. If a student likes mechanics, and is constantly taking apart and reassembling classroom staplers, he might have more kinesthetic strengths and benefit from math concepts explained through manipulatives and more hands-on activities.  Stepping back to see the strengths that may go along with your students’ interests can help you find new ways to motivate your students and help them succeed.

3) Allow the student to engage with their preferred interest to increase self-regulation and decrease anxiety

Adults with ASD tell us that engaging in preferred interests can be calming and reduce anxiety. We can explore individuals’ interests and identify ways that these interests can be utilized to provide positive, calming experiences in therapy or in the classroom. The palliative effect of engaging in these interests can have enormous implications for the school day, where student anxiety can be widespread. We can give our students the opportunity to relax and re-energize through their interests, for example, creating Minecraft-themed break areas in a corner of the classroom where students can recharge before a challenging activity; allowing a student to print a picture of a favorite LEGO® Minifigure for her desk to reference when she’s feeling nervous; or giving him 2-minutes of subway map time to break up a taxing series of fine-motor tasks. Preferred interests are motivating, and we also know from our survey results that participants felt that focusing on these interests was calming and decreased their overall anxiety.

Let’s make a thoughtful, conscious, and active shift to recognizing, honoring, and incorporating the special interest areas of individuals with ASD.

Adapted from article by Kristie Patten Koenig and Lauren Hough Williams, see full article here:http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/scmsAdmin/media/users/al170/publications/Patten_Koenig_Hough_Williams_Preferred_Interests.pdf