The fact that special interests can serve as calming mechanisms is largely true for neuro-typical persons as well. Think of your favorite interests outside of your job and your family. What do you enjoy doing when left to your own devices? Some common interests include the following:
- Collecting Items
Whatever your interest[s] might be, you probably find it/them enjoyable, fulfilling and even relaxing. The interesting thing about interests is that one person’s most favorite activity/thing might be another person’s least favorite thing to do.
Shopping might be a relaxing and enjoyable activity for someone as they comb through racks and racks until they find that crazy deal of all deals! That very same experience might cause stress and even heart palpitations for another as they search for the nearest exit. As with most strategies, interests are highly individualized.
For persons with Aspergers, interests may take many forms and be especially intense. I often find that the level of intensity for the interest is a reflection of the inner stress level. The greater the stress, the greater the need for the interest, or source of calm and certainty, presents itself. So while we must take all measures to reduce stress through structure, we must also be prepared to provide opportunities to engage in the specific interest throughout the day.
I have found that sprinkling interests throughout the day helps to have a more successful outcome in every area. Some interests are more challenging to incorporate throughout the day than others, but we can be creative in how we do so. One simple and discrete way to do this is to decorate a strategy with a picture of the interest. Then, every time the student uses the strategy, they also get a dose of pleasure and calm from their particular interest. This is especially true if the interest is outside of what typical peers might consider age appropriate.
In my first years as a teacher in the early 1980’s, we gave students with significant cognitive disabilities baby toys, mobiles, rattles and the like. As we became more enlightened about human dignity and respect regarding this population, we took a completely different mindset. If a person of that same age would not find it of interest or age appropriate, then we will not present it or allow it for the person with a disability. While I carried that banner for a while, experience has taught me to have a broader understanding of how to approach this sensitive and important issue.
I have found many, many of the students that I have worked with to be drawn in an inexplicable way to a certain character or thing that few of their age group would find interesting. For example, take the high school students that love Barney, Disney movies, Elmo, Sesame Street and on and on. Their passion for it is so great that I now feel it is disrespectful to deny their most treasured source of joy, pleasure and even peace.
I do try to provide their age-inappropriate source of joy in more discrete ways when possible. Decorate a schedule or a transition marker with Barney instead of walking down the hall with a Barney doll or costume. I think we can work it out without making it a black or white issue. Do you know any adults with a train set or doll collection in their garage?
By Lisa Rogers
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