I recently interviewed Joan Nash (a School Psychologist and creator of a number of social skills games) on a whole host of topics relating to the education of children with Aspergers. One topic that really stuck out to me was Joan’s view on children’s special interests and how to successfully work with them. Now the title of this article is “How To Help Your Child Out of The “Special Interest” Trap” and I just want to clarify this, as it may sound negative to some. Now special interests can be hugely useful for children as a source of pride, achievement and the foundation for future success in education and employment. But (and there’s always a but…) it can actually stop children from ever successfully managing to gain meaningful friendships if not negotiated carefully – hence the “trap”.
Now in Joan’s experiences when children with Aspergers have special interests that they continually talk about; this is often a source of comfort too them. They are often afraid to talk about new topics as they know little about them and so are fearful of getting it ”wrong”. So instead of taking a risk the child will “play safe” and discuss their own special interest again and again. Joan gave me a great example of a boy who was really into dinosaurs – so that he would spent most of his time chasing the other kids around and roaring at them like a dinosaur. And as you can imagine that did not help him to build many friendships!
So Joan took several steps to help him. She worked with him on games that involved him talking and discussing new topics with others. The particular game “Let’s Talk” (seewww.childrensucceed.com) involved picking cards that determine the type of topic, and how many points the child had to discuss on the topic. This helped to make him realise that it was OK and safe to discuss other topics outside of the strong knowledge area of dinosaurs.
The other thing that Joan did was to pair him up with another boy in his class to give a talk to the 5/6 year old class in school about dinosaurs. The main knowledge and teaching was done by the boy with the dinosaur interest, and the other boy was his assistant. The talk went really well and the boy with the dinosaur knowledge did a great job. He felt really positive and happy about the experience. This really helped to empower him in the school environment, and to be seen in this new positive light.
The upshot was that the dinosaur chasing and noises began to reduce significantly and then virtually stopped. Joan asked the boy about this and he told her “I still think about dinosaurs at home but I don’t need have to talk about them at school now because I feel safe enough talking about other subjects too”.
And Joan said that the boy was then more of a “risk taker” when it came to conversations (i.e. exploring topics he was not 100% comfortable with) which makes him much more likely to strike friendships through conversation. In fact she said that the boy was sat with another quite sporty boy who said he’d been playing baseball at the weekend. In an attempt to join in and take that “risk” the boy who liked dinosaurs said “how many goals did you get playing baseball this weekend?” So he clearly didn’t have the knowledge of the topic to know that baseball doesn’t have goals, but took the risk of talking about it anyway. And Joan said that the other boy mater of factly just expolained that baseball has runs and they continued the conversation. Which was another interesting point – that Joan said other children can be very empathic and understanding of other kids with Aspergers, so peers can become great “teachers” in themselves.
I really enjoyed these insights from Joan and you can find out more about her work and her games at www.childrensucceed.com And more great insights form her in my new interviews series (coming soon…)
Thanks for reading,