I’m sure you have heard the advice “play to your strengths” before. We are all more comfortable when doing something at which we know (or believe) we are skilled. And, in a competitive environment (like a tennis match, for instance) we know if we use our strengths well and hit to our opponents weak side, we are more likely to emerge victorious. So my frequent opening question – What does this have to do with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)? I’m glad you asked!
My sister had difficulty learning addition and subtraction in elementary school and didn’t like math at all. If you asked her to add 5+5 she would stare at you, and at best guess at an answer. But, if asked how much money she had if I gave her 5 cents and my brother gave her 5 cents (something that would never happen in real life), she would immediately say “10 cents” with a big smile on her face. Luckily she had a teacher who was willing to take the time to change the early math problems into money problems. She was able to learn and excel at math and money, later becoming a successful auditor and budget chief. The teacher knew that by “hiding” the arithmetic as a money issue – playing to her strength – it would avoid her fear response and she would learn arithmetic.
Interests and hobbies can be more than a way of relaxing – they can provide a non-threatening and often pleasurable learning opportunity for children whether or not they have ASD. One method of playing to a child’s strengths is called naturalistic teaching. When using this method, common activities enjoyed by the child become learning opportunities. A brief description of naturalistic teaching can be found here. They give two examples of helping a child increase communication skills simply by using play to promote communication. Imagine how much easier this is than sitting the child down in a chair and repeating a word or a sentence over and over again. That isn’t going to be enjoyable for the child or the teacher/parent.
As a counselor and child welfare specialist, I quickly found that the best way to reach a child was by learning what she enjoyed doing, and then incorporating that activity or discussions about the activity into our sessions. In fact there was one child who wouldn’t talk to me at all until I had met his pet, and as long as he brought his pet with him to sessions he would talk (according to the child, the pet had a good memory and would remind the child of what he wanted to talk to me about, and could help the child remember things). Was it unusual to have a pet in a counseling session back then? Definitely. And the pet happened to belong to a species with which I prefer to avoid interaction. But if I hadn’t recognized the safety this pet provided for the child, it is likely we never would have been able to accomplish our learning and treatment goals.
So, what was that connection to ASD I mentioned back in the beginning? In this article, you can read an excellent narrative written by a 16 year old Canadian girl with ASD. She talks about discovering writing as “a strength that would eventually allow [her] to overcome [her] long-term challenge” of ASD. This blog entry reports on a small research study using kata training (part of martial arts) and its effect on social interaction for the students involved. And here, you can read about a middle school student who is the costumed school mascot for events and the positive impact it has had on his social skills. Before you think “ok, sure, these kids had fun and became more social, but what about independence? What about employment?” you need to read these last two articles. One high school student with ASD who was selected as the primary costumed mascot for his school may be going to Disneyland as part of their internship program (working as a Disney character is real work, with real pay). And the developer of a different type of mascot costume (not the furry ones but blow up, giant-sized costumes) now hires individuals with ASD to work as the “man behind the curtain” for many of his clients.
So let’s start to think about things a little differently. Why not meet our children where they are? You can learn in surprising and unexpected ways, and learning really can be fun!
Russell J. Bonanno, M.Ed.
TAP Program Manager