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Fixations in Individuals with Asperger Syndrome: Stuck in a Rut or Moving Toward Success?

written by: Sharilyn Rose • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 3/28/2011

Teachers and parents know how frustrating those intense interests can be. Should they be restricted or eliminated, or can they be used with positive results?

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    Fixations and Asperger’s

    Asperger’s syndrome (AS), was originally described by Austrian pediatrician, Dr. Hans Asperger, in 1944. Like other autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), individuals with AS exhibit characteristics in three main categories:

    • Qualitative Impairment In Language and Communication Skills
    • Qualitative Impairment In Social Interaction
    • Restrictive and Repetitive Behavior, Activities and Interests

    The third category is particularly relevant when it comes to fixations and Asperger’s. Individuals with ASDs often develop unusual and/or intense areas of interest. Some gravitate toward specific objects, like spinning wheels, seeking them out everywhere they go. Others can recite volumes of information about a particular subject of interest, not realizing that the interest is not shared by others.

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    Common Fascinations

    Fascinations or special interests, for individuals with Asperger’s syndrome, are many and varied. Tornadoes and storms; trains, stations and schedules; baseball statistics; movie trivia; garage door openers; dinosaurs and a chocolate collection are among the many that come up in conversations. These special interests can become all-consuming.

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    Harness the Energy

    Sometimes, for kids with Asperger’s, fixations can be distracting and limiting. Parents and teachers may choose to remove the item of interest entirely from the child’s environment or restrict discussion of the obsessed-about topic. On the other hand, many parents and teachers have found that it can be wiser to work with the fixation, rather than against it.

    Paula Kluth, an author and consultant, recommends using “obsessions" as positive teaching tools that can calm anxious students, provide motivation and improve learning. In her workshops, she tells the story of a student transitioning to first grade where it was no longer appropriate to carry around a toy whale. Initially, the toy was taken away and the results were disastrous. Eventually, staff realized the power of the toy, which reduced the child's anxiety and helped him to make connections with his peers, and the book “Just Give Him the Whale", was born. It's a volume of tips and advice on how to use obsessions and fascinations as teaching tools.

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    Easing Anxiety in Transitions

    For a student with Asperger’s and fixations, individual passions can become very positive tools for transition, setting the child up for success. By starting where the child is comfortable, teachers can help them to build confidence while gradually shifting and expanding special interests.

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    Using Passions to Teach and Motivate

    When teachers creatively, incorporate interests into classroom activities, students with AS may be willing to try things they otherwise would have avoided. Try using photos or clipart of his or her “obsession" on worksheets, or using Power Cards to teach new skills.

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    Using Special Interests to Create Social Connections

    Many students with AS have a difficult time developing and maintaining friendships. Conversation and changing social dynamics can be overwhelming. However, getting involved in activities related to special interests can be an effective way to expand social experiences and develop lasting relationships. Cycling teams, book clubs, drama classes, and interest related part-time jobs can help individuals channel their energy, focusing on their fascination while providing social opportunities too.

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    Developing Interests into Careers

    We can see in the autistic person, far more clearly than with any normal child, a predestination for a particular profession from earliest youth. A particular line of work often grows naturally out of their special abilities.

    – Hans Asperger (1944), as cited in Atwood, T.(2007).

    Student life can be difficult for an individual with Asperger's, because of anxiety, workload, social issues, etc. With a strong support system though, individuals with Asperger’s can successfully turn a special interest into a satisfying career.

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    References & Resources:

    Attwood, Tony. 2007. "Chapter 7: Special Interests." In Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome, 172-201. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2007. Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 24, 2011).

    Attwood, Tony. 2007. Chapter 12: Life After School: College and Career." In Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome, 292-303. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2007. Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 24, 2011).

    Kluth, P. (2009). Transitions Conference. Toronto, Ontario.

    Kluth, P. (2008). Just Give Him the Whale: 15 Ways to Use Fascinations, Areas of Expertise, and Strengths to Support Students with Autism. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html