Special Interests

Every day I learn something new. More than that, I learn something absolutely so new that it was nowhere to be found on my lesson plan. It is in fact one of the most amazing things about my job.

My students are specialists. They often have in depth knowledge about particular topics that interest them; knowledge that they love to share. Knowledge that you can harness to engage them in learning about more or less anything you need to teach.

In fact, if I could give you one tip, and only one tip about working with students with autism, it would be to discover their special interest. Discovering a special interest and sharing it with a student with Autism, will very likely be your key to gaining a relationship with them and therefore being able to teach them effectively.

Many students with autism, have a passionate interest in a particular topic, or small range of topics. These are things they could happily engage in for long periods of time, topics they can talk about enthusiastically and incessantly. These can be age appropriate interests, but the degree to which students relate to them tends to be more intense than their peers. In fact studies suggest that students with autism often process these interests in the part of their brain that neurotypicals use to process people.

With my students these interests range from Thomas the Tank Engine to Minecraft, from Big Brother to Manga, from Elevators to Dolls. They are interests that become a part of our day, interests that we as members of staff go to great lengths to find out more about; the more we know the easier it is for us to reach our students, especially on difficult days.

Most pieces of work can, however tenuously, be linked to a special interest. The special interest is rarely the main focus of our lesson, but if we can somehow twist it in there, engagement is guaranteed. I’ve seen our Science teacher rate elements against a ‘hotest to notest’ list in the Big Brother house. I’ve seen support staff interweave an elevator into virtually any story I’ve ever set, and I’ve seen some very creative Pokémon maths.

You don’t need to create in depth worksheets linking the topic in; you just need to know enough about the interest to link it in with your discussion. It can be as simple as ‘So today we are going to be learning about the effects of wingspan on flying. Hey wouldn’t it be great if the creators of Batman had all this research at their fingertips?’ It’s all about thinking outside the box.

Good differentiation is all about knowing your students as individuals and being able to tap into what they care about. If we do this we increase engagement. If we increase engagement we make it easier for our students to learn. So next time you’re teaching something tricky, take a moment to think about how you can make it relate to the special interests of your students. What’s your hook?

Go on give it a go; this is an easy one. Chat to your students. Follow it with a little big of googling to discover the facts, then throw a line into your opening when you talk about the topic. What have you got to lose?

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