Using interests to engage an autistic individual
Individuals on the autism spectrum may have the most success when they are engaged in something that they have an interest in. An autistic person may struggle with staying engaged and focused on tasks or activities if they are not of interest to them, especially if these tasks appear visually overwhelming, are new, or they are above or below their perceived level of ability.
Whilst this may be true of everyone, the degree of disengagement and concerns that can arise for an autistic person and otherwise neurodivergent individuals because of this can be significant.
So, what can we do to support autistic individuals to be engaged?
- Addressing any signs of anxiety in the first instance is imperative to assist the person to be in the best frame of mind and calm enough to potentially engage in tasks.
- Provide something at the end of a task to motivate a person to want to start (like telling yourself you will allow yourself that KitKat when you have finished doing the dishes or your pay for doing a week’s work), including things that are of interest to the task itself (like doing gardening because you love being outside and eating what you grow), or using that interest in the way they undertake the task (like getting a job in a field you enjoy).
Most people do their best when they are undertaking a task they like, enjoy, or feel they are good at.
Whilst Neurotypical people may strive to please someone or feel their best when they are meeting new people or in social situations, many autistic people may find this hard, or it may create anxiety.
When individuals are engaging with something that they have interest in, this may give autistic individuals great pleasure and help them to feel good.
- So, finding out what is motivating for an individual and then being creative in how you use those motivators is the next step.
When the person is free to do what they want, watch what it is they do. Or ask the individual, their family, teachers or others what they may like.
- Play on the playground when no one else but their close friend or trusted adult is around
- Play Minecraft or Roblox on their computer
- Type in words or phrases on the computer they have seen or heard
- Research all they can about a particular topic
- Collect everything they can about something they like
- Read non-fiction books
- Play with Lego
- Walk around with a particular person (peer or adult)
- Throw a basketball through the hoops by themselves
- Watch the same movie, clip or ad or listen to the same music multiple times
- Play with specific toys in the same way each time
- Tell you everything they know about what interests them
It is important to notice what they do and how they do it and think about ways you may use these interests to support them to engage, and, to even join in with them in this. Joining in with their interests can help to build rapport and connection with that person and you may then get added to the “preferred” list!
They may be playing with something in a different way than most people might, or doing the same thing with it each time. It may not be how we think they should play with it or its intended use, but if it is safe for the item, the person and others, then generally it is us that may need to change how we think about it and what we do!
It can be worth creating a checklist of all the people, places, activities, foods, and items that a person really likes so you have a bank of resources you can draw from. These may be the same for a long time or change frequently; everyone is different.
- Once you have an understanding of the things around which they show interest, then you can start to figure out how you can use interests to teach new skills or help them to engage in areas they may find challenging or hard.
If, for example, a young person is interested in dinosaurs, you could utilise them to teach:
- Math’s: count dinosaurs or add dinosaur toys together to get the sum
- Literacy: encourage them to tell a story about dinosaurs and record it or create a word find of dinosaurs’ names
- Writing: trace around 5 dinosaur words or write the names of 5 kinds of dinosaurs
- Science: find 3 theories as to why the dinosaurs became extinct or develop a theory as to why a dinosaur could still exist today and where
- Art: create a 3-dimensional replica of a dinosaur (this encompasses Math’s too!)
- PE: stomp around like a dinosaur in a prehistoric swamp, then reach up like a Plesiosaur, fly like a Pterosaur etc
- Drama: act out a prehistoric scene where you are a pretending to be dinosaur trying to find something to eat
- Day to day skills: by using a visual schedule with pictures of dinosaurs at each step and then when all steps are completed, they receive a dinosaur sticker to put on a chart. When they get 5 stickers, they get a new toy dinosaur or book about dinosaurs.
- Interpersonal/social skills: run a group around dinosaurs and invite other peers to be part of it – having a shared interest to talk about helps to build connection.
When a person is older the same principles still apply, and if a person really enjoys learning about something then use this to help them complete assignments. The rest of the class may be undertaking a task around “The Bridge to Terabithia” but you know that, for the young person on the spectrum they really do not like that genre.
They are, however, really interested in Ballet, Dr Who or computers, so you provide them with the book “Bunheads”, “More Dr Who and Philosophy” or “the Difference Engine” as they are really keen to learn more around this area.
There are so many ways to engage people within their scope of interest that the list is endless!
They key is to be person centred, find out what they like to do, be creative in how you use this, and help them to develop the skills and abilities in a way that makes sense and works for them, with them.
All of these things assist in promoting engagement, friendships, career pathways and happiness for a person on the spectrum as engagement in an interest can be its own reward. Engaging in it with someone else can bring shared joy.
Remember, it is not about trying to change the person but the environments in which they participate, the activities they undertake and how they engage in them, so they feel safe, supported and able to be authentically themselves. In this way they can become the best ballerina, computer programmer, paleontologist, or person, that they are capable of being, and happy to be doing so.