School & District Management

Study: Autistic Adults See Their Interests as Strengths for Teachers to Cultivate

By Brenda Iasevoli — February 02, 2017 4 min read
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When autistic students take an interest in a subject, their interest can be intense. In the past, teachers tended to suppress these interests in order to avoid disrupting planned lessons. A new study suggests they should do just the opposite.

According to New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, the field of autism research has shifted in its view of the obsessive interests of autistic students, seeing these interests not as weakness but as strengths that can turn into future careers.

The study looked into the ways adults with autism viewed their childhood interests and the role those interests played in the participants’ current careers. Of the 80 participants, 69 percent reported they currently hold a job or are enrolled in an educational program related to their interests. A yen for mechanics, for instance, led to jobs in mechanical engineering, and deep engagement with computers led to IT careers, according to Kristie Patten Koenig, an associate professor of occupational therapy at NYU and the study’s co-author.

“If you are visually detailed with a specialty for solving really complex puzzles, there is a strength there,” says Koenig. “We need people who have good visual detail. We need all kinds of minds, not just one kind, to be successful. So how can we help kids use their strengths to develop vocational pursuits, rather than just focusing on their deficits?”

The majority of participants viewed their interests as positive (81 percent) and calming (92.4 percent) pursuits that teachers and others should encourage. Yet only 10 percent reported that their teachers had been supportive of their interests when they were in school. Many participants, according to the study, said teachers even discouraged their interests if they were aware of them at all. Most participants (87.3 percent) said that teachers should find a way to make use of autistic students’ interests in the classroom.

The study’s authors conclude that teachers should receive training in how to turn the interests of autistic students into activities that will motivate and improve skills. This is the approach NYU takes in its work with the ASD Nest program, which is in 39 schools serving 1,000 autistic students in inclusive classrooms in New York City. Leading each of the classrooms is one general education teacher and one special education teacher.

“Let’s say a child has a strong interest in the subway system,” says Koenig. “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. We’re not saying let the kid dominate the conversation, and let it be about the subway from morning until night. But how can you help him learn when, where,and how to talk about that interest versus holding up a sign of a train with the line through it that says, ‘No train talk?’”

Koenig suggests teachers give students opportunities in the classroom to demonstrate their knowledge in writing or in conversations with classmates. The student with the interest in subways might write a report on the history of subways. If he doesn’t like spelling, he might be motivated to study words pasted to model subway trains. But, Koenig suggests, the teacher must also establish rules for when and how the interest can be addressed in class. The idea, says Koenig, is that students don’t come away thinking that their interests are “bad” and something that they get in trouble for, but rather something that boosts their confidence.

Stephen Shore, a self advocate with autism, has devised some tips for identifying and cultivating interests in the classroom. He suggests that, for a student who is interested in train schedules to the exclusion of other topics, the teacher might suggest what he calls an “excursion.” She might push the topic of train schedules in a slightly different direction. This could include calculations of how long it takes for the train to get from one station to another, or employment opportunities that involve operating the train. You can read Shore’s other suggestions here.

Koenig suggests that future research should take a closer look at how to link up interests with career paths. To this end, NYU is piloting an after-school program for autistic students in three New York City middle schools. Classroom teachers, along with engineering graduate students from NYU, lead after-school clubs that focus on design using computer programs and 3D printing. Students are encouraged to use their specific interests to inform their project, which might be to design a subway car or a spacecraft. The overall goal is to develop students’ interests in STEM subjects and demonstrate how to turn those interests into possible career paths in the future.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.