Autistic Consultant & British Psychologist, Wenn, leading by example to empower autistic individuals and promote quality co-produced research

Practical Examples

How Using 'Interests' Can Help Build Connection to Understanding and to Developing Skills

As autistic individuals we find it heaps easier to connect to understanding when the topic, sentence, concept or idea you are wanting us to appreciate can be related in some way to areas of our interest or attention. You can read more on the science behind this by visiting two of the academic articles I have published: Link 1 and Link 2.

When we can connect what is being taught to us via an area of interest it switches our 'connecting to the big picture brain bits' on (not that our brain is ever switched off) so, enabling us a better chance at building some understanding.

When I talk or teach about this, I'm defining 'interest' as anything that occupies attention. This isn't necessarily a 'special interest' so much as it is either an ongoing occupancy (not good at switching it off, or not wanting to, or not aware of how to) of attention. This can mean attention is being taken over by desire, pain, love, hate, interruption, routine, hobby, fear and so on. So, when I talk about using interest to connect us with how we learn I mean using what our attention is focused upon. This might mean utilising Disney characters in a social story, using Pokemon to illustrate an emotion or putting a recipe together to explain the ingredients for friendship. But, it does not mean finding that 'special interest' that all autistics are supposed to have... not my meaning at all. Some of us do have definite passions but others do not. Observing and noting what it is we seem fixated on, overtaken by or not able to let go off, this could be the very means to helping build connections to learning and understanding in practical ways that help us get through our day.

I'm putting some examples below to help you see what I mean.

When I was studying at High School (as a mature age student in 1990-91) for my Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) one of our topic areas for Australian History was 'The 1930's'. To help me build motivation and focus upon this topic I needed to find an anchor. I was struggling with identity at the time and consumed by this, plus I had a passion for piston engines (it's now superseded by my passion for birds) so I decided to study and write about 'Women, cross dressing and the 1930's'. If you are asking yourself what 'cross dressing & engines have in common' well, the answer is 'female pilots'. Once I had the connection I could explore the 1930's via Australian female pilots of the time. It was not only their usage of male attire for flying though, it opened doors to connections with all manner of life during the 1930's, including legal options for women, social expectations, fashion, education, employment, the economic climate and so much more!

'...to incorporate learning to interests... The boys in my class relished reading articles pertaining to their interests, finding spelling words within and writing about what they had learned from the article...' writes Jacquie.

Then there's using a child's favorite cartoon characters: "Instead of watching Thomas the Tank Engine as a reward, for instance, we would have the child enter the social setting, with Thomas and Percy and the other characters," and learn through them about eye contact, joint play and friendship.

From some more research: Researchers discovered that focusing on these assets allows adolescents to be as capable as anyone else of forging strong friendships. In addition, the research findings demonstrate that the area of the brain that controls such social behavior is not as damaged in AS adolescents as was previously believed. Researchers have reported their findings in the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions.

"The problem is that their restricted interests can dominate their lives and further push away people they'd like to get to know," said Robert Koegel, Ph.D., director of the Koegel Autism Center and the study's lead author. "They're so highly focused on that interest, people think they're weird. But by involving themselves in an activity around the interest, they not only make friends but also become valued members of the group. Their specialized skill becomes a strength."

In the study, the research team took a creative approach to helping three AS boys to interact with their peers. Rather than discourage their sometimes-obsessive interests, the researchers helped set up social clubs around them and invited students who were not AS to join. The clubs provided a venue for the AS students to display their special interests and abilities, and helped them engage with their peers in a more meaningful way.

Koegel offered the example of an AS student who has a keen interest in computer graphics. The team created a graphic design club in which students would design logos for various companies and businesses.Because most of the students lacked the necessary expertise, they depended on their AS classmate to make the venture a success. "When he was able to interact on a topic in which he was interested, he was able to demonstrate more normal social behavior," Koegel said. "He not only made friends with his fellow members, he was elected club president." See: Article Link

Then there is the situation of a young woman who has Down syndrome and autism using her love of Ninja Turtles and shredding, to start her own business with the support of her Mum: Metro Article and Video. Emma has her own 'work shirt' which has 'Master Shredder' written on the back. Emma has incorporated her love of Ninja Turtles movies and characters into and alongside of her love for shredding.

So, social understanding, good self-esteem, confidence and ability can all be built upon and improved as we make connections to understanding. Understanding is constructed as we make connections from things we already feel and get. Connections are more likely to spread in autism as others join us at our point of interest. It might be around a computer, playing video games, creating models from Lego, playing with numbers, maps, engaging in conversation, watching TV or a video, reading a book or taking part in role play. Whatever it is, it comes together better, if we are already attending.

The above are just a few examples of connection via motivational interest. There are lots and lots of ways we can use, even the seemingly negative aspects of perceived interest, to build connections. Please feel free to email me if you have an interesting story to tell about connections from being interested in one thing which led to establishing concepts with something else.