Using Strengths, Fascinations, & Areas of Expertise in the Classroom

By Paula Kluth

Many individuals with autism have deep interest in one or a variety of topics. Some interests are commonly seen across individuals with autism (e.g., trains, horses, light switches), others seem more unique to an individual person. For instance, Sean Barron, a man with autism once had a deep interest in the number 24. At another point in his life, he became fascinated by dead-end streets (Barron & Barron, 1992)

In some cases, a student’s interests or fascinations are described using negative terms. For example, students with autism are often accused of perseverating or obsessing on topics or objects. Willey (2001) cautions that it can be dangerous for people without autism to pass judgment about an individual’s fascinations or areas of expertise. In fact, she shares, in many ways and in many circles, having intense interests is considered positive and even admirable.

At the base, I have to wonder, are we so very different from marathon athletes, corporate presidents, bird watchers, or new parents counting every breath their newborn takes? It seems lots of people, NT or otherwise, have an obsession of sorts. In my mind, that reality rests as a good one, for obsessions, in and out of themselves are not bad habits. There is much good about them. Obsessions take focus and tenacious study. They are the stuff greatness needs. I have to believe the best of the remarkable – the artists, musicians, philosophers, scientists, writers, researchers and athletes—had to obsess on their chosen fields or they would never had become great. In some respects, then, it must be said that obsessions do not have to be considered handicaps. (p. 122)

I have worked with students interested in Korea, vacuum cleaners, screwdrivers, cockroaches, stop signs, churches, weathervanes, triangles, The Wizard of Oz , Scooby Doo, and basketball. Any of these interests might be used as part of a classroom curriculum. A student who loves trains might be asked to write a story about riding on a caboose, encouraged to research different railroads on the internet, or directed to do an independent research project on ground transportation in America.

The teacher may even be able to build a whole-class activity using a child’s individual interest. One student, Freddie, loved to “do the calendar”. When I started working with Freddie, his favorite activity was studying the calendar and answering questions about the holidays and special events (e.g., Independence Day, Christmas, First Day of Spring). While this interest in the calendar wasn’t hurting Freddie’s education, it also wasn’t helping him to grow as a learner. To enhance Freddie’s learning and to challenge all students in his sixth-grade classroom, his teachers developed a calendar activity appropriate for older students. While all of the students in the classroom knew the days of the week and the months of the year, only a few of them knew that December 7th was the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor or that President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22nd in Texas. The teachers had all of the students work in small groups to find important dates in American and world history. Freddie was responsible for presenting the “event of the day” each morning. All students—including Freddie—learned something new and Freddie was thrilled to have a calendar activity incorporated into the daily schedule.

Similarly, Matt, a middle school student loved maps; he loved to draw them, to read them, and to interpret them. When I visited him in his home, I saw some of his creations and was amazed at the detail and creativity in each. I was surprised, then, when I visited Matt’s school and his teachers did not know much about his incredible abilities in mapmaking. His parents suggested that he be allowed to use his expertise in the classroom and his teachers were only too happy to comply. His teachers decided that Matt would be allowed to display his maps in the classroom and teach his peers a few new map skills. During the first week, Matt taught both latitude and longitude and the concept of map scale to his peers.

Teachers can also use fascinations to connect students to new interests and areas of study. For instance, I know a student who loves talking about the weather. His English teacher turned this interest into a literacy activity by showing the young man where he could find the daily weather in the newspaper each morning. She then introduced the student to other sections of the newspaper. Over time, he became interested in the sports section and began to look forward to checking information about and scores of local sports teams. Eventually, the teacher was even able to interest this learner in sports biographies.

Whenever possible, educators should use interests, strengths, skills, areas of expertise, and gifts as tools for teaching in the following ways:

  • Integrate interests into curriculum
  • Allow extra-credit opportunities related to interests
  • Allow student to teach interests to other learners
  • Use the interest to teach unfamiliar or difficult content
  • Use the interest to help a learner through a challenging moment (e.g., let a student have a favorite object during a difficult time)

These suggestions can help educators move from seeing a student’s uniqueness as a liability to understanding it as an important tool for building curriculum, instruction, and individual supports.

References

Barron, J. & Barron, S. (1992). There’s A Boy in Here. New York: Simon & Schuster. Willey, L.H. (2001).

Asperger Syndrome in the Family: Redefining Normal.
Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley.

© 2005 Paula Kluth. Adapted from: P. Kluth (2003). “You’re Going to Love This Kid”: Teaching Students with Autism in the Inclusive Classroom . Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.

 

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