A new study reveals that the strong interests of students with autism should be encouraged, not suppressed. New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, surveyed autistic adults and asked them reflect on their childhood interests and the way in which they impacted on their current occupation. Of the 80 participants in the study, nearly 70% said that their present job was related in some way to their childhood interest. Yet, only 10% reported that their teachers in school supported their interests. Many participants indicated that teachers in fact, did the opposite, they actively sought to suppress these preferences.
I know when I was doing research for my book The Power of Neurodiversity, I found many research articles which referred to these interests as ”obsessions” and saw them as part of the pathology of autism. Yet, there are many ways to promote interests in the classroom and make them a wider part of the curriculum. If the student’s interest is about horses, he can write about horses, read books about famous race horses, investigate the care and feeding of horses as a science project, do math problems that have to do with a horse’s speed, and visit horse stables or a veterinarian who specializes in taking care of horses. “Let’s say a child has a strong interest in the subway system,” says Kristie Patten Koenig, the co-author of the NYC study. “If you view their talking about the subway as a barrier, you’re going to work to manage and decrease that behavior. But if you see that interest as a strength, you’re going to find a way to help them use that interest to demonstrate their knowledge and to work on areas of weakness.”
An excellent book for teachers that explains how to take the special interests of children diagnosed with autism and integrate them into the curriculum is Paula Kluth’s Just Give Him the Whale!: 20 Ways to Use Fascinations, Areas of Expertise, and Strengths to Support Students with Autism.
For more information on providing appropriate educational interventions for children with brain differences (including autism), see my book Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life (ASCD)
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