Thank You, Bob Barker!
Using Passions, Strengths, and Areas of Special Interest to Support Students on the Spectrum
Adapted from: Kluth, P. & Schwarz, P. (2008). Just Give Him the Whale. Baltimore: Brookes.
Walker, a middle-school student I know, adores Bob Barker. He loves to watch The Price is Right, play games involving estimation, and often uses a “game show voice” when he speaks. Some teachers in his past have been less than enthusiastic about these quirks. One even gave Walker a red “x” on his behavior chart if he was caught talking “like Bob”. When Walker entered fifth grade, however, the teacher understood the interest in Bob Barker as a potential tool for teaching and supporting her student. She brought an inflatable microphone into the classroom so Walker could use it for his oral reports and class presentations, she kept a box of clip-on ties that he could wear on days he felt a bit “off” or down, and even incorporated several Price is Right games into her math instruction. When I asked this savvy educator about her decision to use Walker’s interests she was very clear about her rationale: I use Price is Right because it makes my job easier and really engages Walker. Why wouldn’t I use it? When things get particularly tough with him, we can often use Bob to get him back on track. So I don’t mind bringing in this obsession at all. In fact, I often think to myself, “Thank you, Bob Barker! What would I do without you?”
Like Walker, many individuals with autism and Asperger’s syndrome have deep interest in one or a variety of topics and, like Walker’s teacher, many educators are discovering that student fascinations can be bridges to learning, motivation, and support. Unfortunately, special interests are not always valued or seen as potential tools by teachers. Many a meeting has been planned and a behavior program written to squelch a student’s “obsessions.” In some of these instances, the student may not even be aware that the decision to limit or eliminate the fascination has been made. This individual may, therefore, be confused or distressed when he or she realizes their favorite object or topic has been banned or significantly restricted.
Lianne Holliday Willey (2001), author, parent of a daughter with Asperger’s syndrome and an “Aspie” herself cautions that it can be dangerous for people without autism to pass judgment about the passions and “favorites” of others. In fact, she shares, 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 have become great. (p. 122) I agree with Holiday Willey and feel strongly that if educators could reframe obsessions as fascinations, passions, interests, or favorites and see them as potential tools, educators and their students may potentially be more satisfied, calm, and successful. Five different ways that teachers can capitalize on a student’s “loves” are shared here.
1) To Develop a Relationship with the Learner
One of the most common ways to get to know another person is to exchange information about interests. Whether you are a scuba diver or a cat lover, chances are you look for opportunities to tell others about your area of specialty. Some of us even go so far as to “advertise” our (sometimes very unique) interests via t-shirts, bumper stickers, tote bags and coffee cups (“Baseball Isn’t Everything, It’s the Only Thing”, “I Love Beagles”, “Quilting Queen”). We share this information perhaps because we hope to start conversations with others about our favorite topics. Or maybe we are seeking those with similar fascinations. Or we may simply be asserting “This is who I am—this is something special about me.”
Asking students about their “favorites” is a great getting-to-know-you strategy. Since many of our students with autism have fascinations that may be unusual and not shared by many other people –like our friend, Jack, who loves wrenches—they may be especially appreciative of those who will take some extra time to listen and learn.
A formal way to use student interests to develop a relationship is to interview a student (or his family, if the student does not have reliable communication) about his area of interest. For example, Kip, a student who loves tractors, was shocked when his teacher, Mr. Rye, invited him to lunch and proceeded to ask him all about John Deere, Case, and other companies that the student revered. This was a turning point in Kip’s education as no teacher had ever treated his love of farm equipment as anything more than a tolerable quirk. While Kip was never reprimanded for talking about tractors, he was discouraged from doing so. As a result, he felt frustrated at school and routinely begged his mother to let him stay home. After being interviewed by Mr. Rye, however, he became excited to go to school and, his mother reported that he worked harder for Mr. Rye than he had for any other teacher. When Mr. Rye asked Kip to take risks or to challenge himself, the young man would take the charge seriously and work to impress his teacher. When asked the reason for his turn around, Kip replied, “I work well with Mr. Rye. We both love tractors. We understand each other.”
2) To Help Them Shine
Students with autism labels may use their passion or fascination to showcase their talent and demonstrate to others that they are intelligent. This may be especially important for learners who have been seen or labeled as challenging or difficult. You might help your students create a resume, portfolio, or scrapbook so they can showcase special talents or areas of expertise in a formal way. Or consider planning a classroom-wide “tell us what you know” talent show that focuses on student’s areas of expertise. Students can choose to either give a short presentation on areas of special interest or simply stand before the group and field questions from fellow classmates.
3) To Expand Social Opportunities
Some students who find conversation and common ways of socializing a challenge are amazingly adept when the interaction occurs in relation to an activity or favorite interest. For instance, Patrick, an eighth-grader, had few friendships and seldom spoke to his classmates until a new student came into his English classroom wearing a Star Wars tee-shirt. Patrick’s face immediately lit up and he began bombarding the newcomer with questions and trivia about his favorite film. The new student, eager to make a friend, began bringing pieces of his science fiction memorabilia to class. Eventually, the two students struck up a friendship related to their common interest and, with teacher support, formed a lunch club where a few students gathered to play video and board games related to science fiction films (Kluth & Schwarz, 2008).
4) To Comfort
Teachers who understand the power of student passions as well as those who simply are concerned about making their students lives as stress-free as possible will explore how each learner’s fascinations and areas of interest might be used in times of crisis, stress, and difficulty. Too often, we face a student’s crisis with warnings and consequences. Instead, we should be providing access to a student’s fascinations when times get tough. Not only does this strategy serve to make the student’s day more relaxing but it can make the teacher’s day more calm and predictable as well!
For example, a fourth-grade teacher, aware that her student, Mary Chris, frequently had difficulty during fire and tornado drills (including screaming and biting herself), used that student’s passion to keep her focused and relaxed during these stressful times. When the alarm sounded, the teacher pulled Mary Chris to the front of the line and softly sang “Walking After Midnight” as the class marched to their designated emergency spot. With this sensitive support in place, Mary Chris quietly and quickly walked out of the building beside her teacher (Kluth & Schwarz, 2008).
Following this teacher’s lead, you might allow a student to spend time with favorite objects or materials during times of distress or difficulty. You might even provide a comfort space somewhere in the school where the learner can go to relax and “visit” favorite materials or activities.
5) To Interest Them in Standards-Based Content
In addition to tapping into a learner’s knowledge base, teachers might also target a student’s special skill areas. In a study I conducted with my colleague (Kasa-Hendrickson & Kluth, 2005), a teacher, Ms. Holder, who was planning for Shantel, a child with autism, used one of the young girl’s areas of prowess to involve her in social studies curricula: I want her to realize that she is very good at doing some things on her own. So I asked myself, “What is Shantel good at on her own?” Puzzles. She is great at puzzles. I knew another teacher had this magnetic puzzle globe so I asked if I could borrow it. Shantel needs to learn about Europe. It is important for her to have the same academic experiences and I might as well incorporate what she is good at to do it. (p. 9) Not only was Ms. Holder able to find classroom time for Shantel to work on the puzzles she so loved, but she found creative ways to push her student into complex content using a skill that the learner prized. Any teacher can search the curriculum for opportunities to teach about the student’s loves. If the student is crazy about vacuum cleaners, this topic can be quite easily featured in a unit on inventions. If the student adores whales, the teacher can discuss them during lessons on habitats or ocean life. And if the student is fascinated with Nancy Drew and mystery novels, this topic can not only be explored during reading or English classes in general, but also when the class studies deduction or problem-solving.
Certainly interests can be limiting and teachers may, at times, need to work with students to reduce time with and attention to fascinations. What has been less of a focus of conversation and planning in schools has been the idea that special interests can also be freeing, calming, motivating, captivating and inspiring. In this article, I hope I have communicated that the fascinations, interests, and areas of expertise that are so often important to students with autism (and other students, as well) should be more valued, honored, and respected and used more frequently as tools for teaching, supporting, and including.
Kasa-Hendrickson, C., & Kluth, P. (2005). “We have to start with inclusion and work it out as we go”: Successful inclusion for non-verbal students with autism. Journal of Whole Schooling, 2, 2-14.
Kluth, P. & Schwarz, P. (2008). “Just give him the whale!”: 20 Ways to use fascinations, areas of expertise, and strengths to support students with autism.
Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes. Willey, L.H. (2001). Asperger syndrome in the family: Redefining normal. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley.