Using strong interests to achieve positive goals

Autistic individuals can display strong interests in almost anything. These strong interests can often disrupt or throw a wrench in the good intentions of those working with them. Or, these powerful interests can be used positively for the individual with autism as we work to establish educational goals.

Meet John: John is a junior high school student who has a written schedule that he uses effectively during his school day. John’s schedule lists, from top to bottom, his classes as they will unfold during his day. He checks off each event as he arrives at its location. If a change happens, his teacher can cross out the event listed and put in the change, helping John adjust to something new and unexpected.

IMG_Telephone.jpgJohn has a strong obsessive interest in the telephone and, when he sees one, he cannot resist the urge to pick up the receiver and attempt a call home. A problem developed when his overall class schedule changed, with the new route taking him past the administrative office on his way to one of his classes.

His classrooms were able to deal with his strong interest and lack of control by either covering the phones or hiding them from his sight. The office, however, could not do this since the phone is used so frequently. You might imagine the stir John caused the first couple of times he burst into the office to use the phone to make a call home.  They attempted to hide the phone for a short time but realized this was not a long-range solution, nor one that would benefit John.

Rather than try to keep the phone away from John, his TEACCH consultant recommended that he be given two opportunities each day to call home. His parents agreed to put a message on the phone that he would be able to hear, changing it on a weekly basis.

His phone times were put on his daily schedule, one mid-morning and one shortly after lunch. Once John had several experiences using the phone and was able to see it listed on his daily schedule, his behavior changed dramatically. Telephones could now be in clear view and he made no effort to go and use them compulsively. The fact that he knew he would have time with the phone had a calming effect upon him and also resulted in turning what was once a disruptive behavior into an experience that was fun.

Because the TEACCH consultant did not see this as a black and white problem, John experienced greater behavioral flexibility.

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