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?

Free Time Matters Too

Free time with my students means the world to me! But for many students with ASD unstructured times are the times they find most difficult. At these times there isn’t a designated plan of action, instead we expect them to navigate the complex social world around them, often without support. The student often arrives back in your classroom upset and frustrated, feeling as though the world is against them and desperate to do anything but settle down to work.

It doesn’t have to be that way though. Free time can be used to your advantage. It can be a positive thing. It’s one of the reasons that both I and many other members of my team don’t take a break and eat our lunch with our students. No one has asked us to do it; we just do it because it works best that way. My students will tell you that eating my lunch with them is my favourite part of the day – and what’s more they are right!

I love lunch times because it allows me to be with my students on their terms, to talk to them about their special interests, to find out what makes them tick. If I make time to listen to them, they are far more likely to want to work for me. For me it’s a win win situation!

If we are around we can help our students to navigate these social times successfully, but more than that we can equip them with the skills to be more independent in the future. We can practice conversations, get to know our students better, give our students independence when they can cope but be near enough to step in and prompt when they can’t. Surely this is what lunch time supervisors are for, I hear you cry. True, they are. But our students often need more skilled support from someone who knows them well, who can spot them when they are starting to get anxious not when they have entered full-blown meltdowns. Who know the right moment to whisper ‘will you play with me?’ in their ear, when they are standing looking longingly at another child, before the moment is over and they’ve walked away assuming that the other child doesn’t want to play with them.

At break times, I have students who will sit and chat, I have others who will play tig, others who need some alone time on a computer and others still who like nothing better than to help me with jobs. I have students who will only play if a member of staff plays too, and ones who want to be alone.

We know that one learning style doesn’t suit all of our students; we create lessons to help them succeed. So what makes us think that one type of break time suits all of our students? Some need time to run and play and let of steam – others need time to escape from the pressures of social interaction and lose themselves in technology. We need to be adaptable and provide our students with the opportunities for both.

So why not try something different next break time? Arrange some different activities, ask someone to help you with a job or just sit and chat. Give it a try; you’ll be pleasantly surprised. After all, if your teacher said ‘If you don’t do your work, then you won’t get your break’ and break was your least favourite time of day, what would you do?

What Would You Do If You Were A Monkey In Space?

A common misconception is that students with Autism don’t have imagination. Whoever first made that statement, clearly didn’t have students like mine! My students have richer imaginations than anyone I know; they can invent new words, write amazing stories and come up with a million and one questions that no one else would ever even contemplate wondering about!

I love the conversations I have in my classroom, I learn so much. I have, in the last week alone debated the pros and cons of Disney’s Beast versus The Beast from X-Men, conversed with Dr Brown Bear as I cured my blutack made spotty students (and support staff), discussed the necessary elements to turn an ordinary bedroom into an Australian Jungle and been initiated into the world of online role play. No day is ever the same and that is why my job is the best job in the world.

Alongside the incredible imaginations of my students, comes a desire to discuss their special interests and link those interests to whatever we are learning. At this they are incredibly skilled, and I’m often both simultaneously impressed and perturbed by their ability to railroad my lessons with a fantastic (if only tenuously linked to my lesson plan) question!

I’ve learnt, however, over time that I can utilise these questions to my advantage, rather than feel frustrated by them…. instead I tell my students that they came up with such an incredible question, that I need time to think of an answer that is just as incredible. And that is exactly what I do! The students begin their work, I think of my answers and then, when I can see a student is starting to find things a bit tricky I have the perfect pick me up in a well thought out (if often somewhat bizarre) answer to the very imaginative question I have previously been asked.

So how could this work in mainstream? Why not give those students who can be somewhat tangential in your lessons a pack of post it notes (I already warned you, any excuse and my post it notes appear), ask them to write down any questions that come into their head that aren’t directly related to the lesson. Then when students are settled and working go round the class and check out the post-its. Either discuss individually, or pick your favourite each lesson and give a whole class answer (just make sure students know in advance which method you’re using so they’re not disappointed if you don’t choose them).

Use imagination to your advantage, you’ll be surprised at what you discover!