Part 8: Teaching Strategies for Students with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism – Restricted Range of Interests

Kids with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) have eccentric preoccupations or odd, intense fixations (e.g., obsessively collecting unusual things). They tend to: ask repetitive questions about interests; follow own inclinations regardless of external demands; have trouble letting go of ideas; relentlessly "lecture" on areas of interest; and, sometimes refuse to learn about anything outside their limited field of interest.

Programming Suggestions for Teachers:

1. Use the AS or HFA youngster's fixation as a way to broaden his repertoire of interests. For example, during a lesson on rain forests, the student who is obsessed with animals can be led to not only study rain forest animals, but to also study the forest itself since this is the animals' home. The student can then be motivated to learn about the local people who are forced to chop down the animals' forest habitat in order to survive.

2. Use of positive reinforcement selectively directed to shape a desired behavior is a crucial strategy for helping the youngster with AS or HFA. These “special needs” kids respond well to compliments (e.g., in the case of a relentless question-asker, the teacher can consistently praise the child as soon as she pauses – and congratulate her for allowing others to speak). These kids should also be praised for simple, expected social behavior that is taken for granted in “typical” kids.

3. Some kids with AS and HFA will not want to do assignments outside their area of interest. Firm expectations must be set for completion of classwork. It must be made very clear to the youngster that he is not in control – and that he must follow specific rules. At the same time, though, meet the child halfway by giving him opportunities to pursue his own interests.

4. AS and HFA students can be given assignments that link their special interest to the subject being studied. For example, during a social studies lesson about a specific country, a youngster obsessed with trains can be assigned to research the modes of transportation used by people in that country.

5. For particularly unruly kids on the autism spectrum, it may be necessary to initially individualize all assignments around their interest area (e.g., if the interest is dinosaurs, then offer grammar sentences, math word problems, and reading and spelling tasks about dinosaurs). Then, gradually introduce other topics into assignments.

6. Do not allow the AS or HFA youngster to incessantly discuss – or ask questions about – isolated interests. Limit this behavior by designating a specific time during the day when she can talk about this. For example, a youngster who is fixated on animals and has countless questions about the class pet turtle should be advised that she is allowed to ask these questions only during recesses. This can be part of her daily routine, and she may quickly learn to stop herself when she begins asking these kinds of questions at other times of the day.

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