How Can We Incorporate Special Interests Into The School Day?

Special Interests are often underestimated in terms of their value, both by teachers and parents. The reality is though that if we properly harness their potential, they can be a valuable tool in making our children feel more relaxed and therefore in promoting learning.

Research shows that children with autism process their feelings about their special interest in the same place in their brain that those who are neurotypical reserve for those who they love. The feelings that spending time exploring it provoke are therefore incredibly powerful and should not be underestimated.

Lesson Time

It is surprisingly easy to relate lessons to so many of our student’s special interests. From comprehension lessons based on Pokemon, discussions about habitats related to Minecraft or looking at the conventions of Fairytales through Disney characters. If you know your student and their interest well enough, there is very little you cannot relate to it. It will take more planning time, but trust me once you have seen just how much they enjoy it you’ll never go back to lesson planning any other way.

Reward Time

Incorporating special interests into your reward schemes will set them quite literally on fire. Again knowing your students is key, but easy inexpensive choices which have gone down well with my class are singular Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon and Match Attack Cards, earning time to watch a favourite film and time spent with a member of staff watching YouTube videos whilst discussing their merits.

Break Time

Do not underestimate how much students will enjoy spending time sitting chatting about their special interest either to a member of staff or a student with a similar interest. Free time is something that my students find difficult, as its when their social and communication difficulties are most challenged. For some, especially younger students, a box full of tangible items related to their special interest will prove a valuable too especially for indoor break times or for using if a student becomes too overwhelmed during outdoor play.

During Sensory Breaks

The busy school environment can be a challenging place for many students with autism, in order to get through the day some will need regular sensory breaks. These breaks provide students with a chance to get away from seated work and often also from the busy school environment. Time to briefly switch off from the outside world via their special interest can provide a valuable break. This can be done either by the provision of a box of special interest related items which comes out at set times, or by allowing students to talk about, draw, visit (in the case of students who like to watch a lift or other easily accessible item) or otherwise express their interest in a way that is appropriate to them.

As A Way Of Promoting Emotional Regulation

Regulating their emotions is something many of my students find extremely difficult. If they become upset, distressed or even tremendously excited it can be challenging for them to get back on an even keel and resume their school day. Focusing for a while on their special interest, talking about it with an adult or playing with preferred items can help them to do just that. Sometimes sacrificing a little of the day, has a big knock on effect on the rest of it. Meaning that instead of going into crisis a student is able to regulate both their emotions and behaviour and therefore resume learning more quickly.

As Distraction

I’m a big believer in averting a crisis whenever possible. Whether it’s a piece of work that a student looks at and decides is too challenging, an argument with a friend or a confrontation about a school rule, distraction is my method of choice. A quick conversation about a special interest often reminds my students that I am human and therefore technically at least might be being reasonable. It’s therefore much easier to then gently persuade them to return back to the task in hand. The direct method isn’t always the most effective.

To Build Relationships

Talking to my students is important to me. If I want them to listen to what I need them to learn I have to be prepared to be interested in the things that are important to them. I have learnt a lot over the years about all manner of topics I may never have known anything about otherwise. But more important than any fact that I have learnt is that for a while I am able to enter a world which is important to my students, to see their eyes light up, and to meet them on their playing field. It’s during this time that I am able to truly build a relationship with them, in order to enable me to be the most effective teacher I can be.

What next?

Why not join our Facebook Group full of parents and teachers of children with autism who are working together to share strategies.

Our online autism courses are also a great place to learn more.

Download our free writing prompt cards below, perfect for enabling you to differentiate work to allow students to write about their own interests.

If you need any further help or would like me to explain anything further don’t hesitate to drop me an email.


6 thoughts on “How Can We Incorporate Special Interests Into The School Day?

  1. This is a fabulous post. I definitely think we (parents and teachers) miss a trick if we think we need to steer a child away from their special interests. I agree that using special interests can help a child maintain attention, stay happy and learn. I’ve learned more about dinosaurs, space and more recently the pros and cons of various political systems (my son is 16 now) than I ever expected to. I didn’t know about the part of the brain activated when an autistic person is focused on a special interest being the same area that is used by an NT person thinking about their loved ones – no wonder emotions can get so stirred up when access to a special interest is thwarted! #spectrumsunday

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