The Benefits of Special Interests in Autism Spectrum
Where neuroscientists are just beginning to explore the biology of special interests, educators have been experimenting with them for over 30 years. In a 2016 study, researchers looked at 20 studies, dating as far back as 1990, in which teachers used students’ special interests in the classroom. In some studies, teachers used special interests as a reward for good behavior, and in others, they incorporated special interests directly into the curriculum. The researchers found that all tactics were successful, but that students fared best when their interest was built into the learning.
In one case, a second grade teacher gave a student books on Thomas the Tank Engine, his particular interest, and within months the child’s reading comprehension had gone from a grade one to mid-grade. second. In another case, teachers used a child’s interest in the Titanic to teach social skills, using the phrase “Iceberg just ahead!” to reinforce the importance of keeping your distance. The tactics helped this boy remember not to stand too close to his classmates.
Preliminary results from an ongoing brain imaging study by Gabrieli’s team support the potential utility of Special Interests as an educational tool. The team analyzed the brains of children with and without autism while listening to stories written by the study team that relate to either their specific interest – soccer, dragons and the like – or nature. So far, researchers have tested 20 children. For children with autism, listening to a story of their particular interest activated key regions of language in the brain much more strongly than hearing a nature tale. Because much of the learning that takes place in school is auditory, says Gabrieli, the results suggest that working a particular interest into a lesson could be a way to engage children with autism.
Using particular interests in the classroom is not yet standard. But at PS 32 in Brooklyn, New York, where autistic and non-autistic children learn together, teachers regularly incorporate special interests and they see both academic and behavioral benefits. For example, a 6-year-old girl whose interest was outer space found it difficult to stop what she was doing to move on to the next activity. Her teachers turned the girl’s backrest into a rocket, cutting corners and firing bolsters, a cabin, and flames. “I would say, ‘Okay, I’ll open the hatch; work has to go inside and get on the rocket, take off at 10 am, ”says teacher Jenny Licata. “Transitions are no longer a problem, because it’s fun.”
“If it’s their natural motivational capacity, then rather than trying to suppress it, it might be more helpful for the child to rely on it.” John gabrieli
Teachers say special interests help kids connect more with their peers, and some evidence supports this observation. In a 2012 study, researchers designed school lunch clubs around the interests of three children with autism (movies, comics, and card games) and advertised them to their classmates through advertisements. and leaflets. Children with autism had been socially isolated, but when they encountered these clubs, they interacted with their peers 85-100% of the time.
Some teachers are reluctant to encourage special interests for fear that children will be distracted, says Shari Boylan, senior special education professor at PS 32. That notion does not make sense, she says, because those interests are often in. a child’s mind anyway. “You can’t deny a child’s special interest when their special interest is in their brain,” she says. And discouraging a particular interest can cause distress. In a 2000 study, a boy fascinated by the calendar described how he felt when his interest was devalued. “I was so bowled over, in the sense that my passion for time was just a waste of time,” he said.
In 2019, psychologist Alan Smerbeck of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York City developed a survey aimed at disentangling the positive and negative aspects of special interests. The 68-point questionnaire can flag difficult behaviors surrounding an interest – such as pursuing it at the expense of other important tasks, or not valuing the interests of others – so that these can be addressed without discouraging the interest itself. . Survey responses might suggest, for example, that a child needs to learn to talk less with peers about their interest, to avoid being teased or bullied, and to build stronger relationships. “Rather than making a goal of reducing the interest, we can make a goal of reducing the problem,” says Smerbeck.
Special interests can offer long-term practical benefits, says Kristie Patten, associate professor of occupational therapy at New York University. In a 2017 survey conducted by his team, 62% of respondents said their interests had helped them be successful in life, and 86% said they were working in a job or studying in a program that incorporated those interests. “We’ve pathologized some of these things with autism that really, if we turn them around and see them as strengths, the results will be so much better,” she says.
In a professional context, the accumulation of specific and eclectic knowledge can be invaluable. Van Kirk once solved a catastrophic security issue for one of his company’s corporate clients when he noticed a small anomaly in reams of code. “I remember those weird, dark little things that you only see three or four times in a career,” she says. “And people come to me for these skills.”
Research shows that beyond these practical advantages, a particular interest often has a deeper value. “It reduces stress. It helps the person calm down when they are upset, ”says Smerbeck. The highest rated item of his survey? “These interests seem to make my child really happy.”