In this month of anti-bullying efforts, lets not overlook the flip side of reinforcing preferred activities or natural gifts that many with Autism Spectrum Disorders have.
A preferred interest (sometimes referred to as a restricted or focused interest) is usually an object, subject, or idea of great personal value and focus for a child with autism. Many young children like trains and, in particular, Thomas the Tank Engine, from the popular book and TV series. A child who seems unable to talk about anything else can sometimes burst with enthusiasm and share a series of details about Thomas, Percy, James, or any of the other characters on the imaginary Island of Sodor.
In using the preferred interest of a child with autism, teachers need to personalize the support of a child’s interest while finding innovative ways to include the needs and interests of each other student in the classroom. Incorporating a child’s preferred interest allows for the recognition of his or her potential strengths rather than highlights an apparent weakness.
Jordan, who loved to doodle. He, too, had a difficult time beginning conversations or interactions with his peers, except when he began doodling. His simple drawings were so good that his peers often asked him to sketch objects for them. Jordan’s history teacher, recognizing his strength in sketching, asked if he would be willing to “sketch out” a historical scene on the white board to help the teacher illustrate to the class what it may have looked like at that time in history. Jordan literally jumped at the chance!
It was important for Jordan to be included in the class lesson in meaningful and positive ways. Involving him in the lesson not only increased his self-esteem but helped benefited everyone else in the classroom, who got to learn new topics from different points of view.
Including a child’s preferred interest is both reinforcing and intrinsically motivating to the student with autism. Including preferred interests can help some children with autism keep their interest on a lesson and improve their performance while decreasing other possible disruptive behaviors.
When providing an opportunity for a child with autism to express or show off a preferred interest, they often have a heightened sense of self-esteem and at times may speak more confidently and fluidly. Fluency in expressed language seems to be present more often when the child is conversing on a preferred interest. Furthermore, it often includes a wider range of vocabulary and improved conversational skills.
Taken as a whole, the child with autism often feels more included an is often more included and is less often then often a target of the bully.