Harness the Power of Passions, by Temple Grandin

One key to getting a child on the spectrum motivated for schoolwork is to use his special interests in selecting teaching materials.

There needs to be a lot more emphasis on what a child can do instead of what he cannot do. Being on the spectrum is difficult, but we need to develop a more “can-do” attitude. Recently, I read the most amazing book titled The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba. It is about a poor African farm boy who figured out how to build a windmill to generate electricity for his house. William was motivated to learn science and figure out how things worked. In an old library, he found some science books that enabled him to build a generator and windmill from scrap parts and old vehicles.

Although William lived a life of great adversity and poverty, he followed his passion. I suspect that he may have had some of the characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). His single-minded drive to learn about electricity and build a windmill could be an AS trait. He figured out how to build generators, radio transmitters, circuit breakers, phone chargers, and microphones. All of his devices were made from old radios, vehicle parts, and junkyard stuff.

I think this would be an excellent book for a young person on the spectrum to read. Even though life was very hard, William succeeded. We need to teach young people on the spectrum that they will need to work hard to be successful. The Paralympics is another example of the combination of hard work and passion. It shows what a person with physical challenges can do. Amputees and paraplegics are achieving at sports through their effort and dedication and also having a good time.

Use Passions to Educate
One key to getting a child on the spectrum motivated for schoolwork is to use his special interests in selecting teaching materials. Special interests and fixations on a single subject need to be harnessed to motivate study. Jennifer Cook O’Toole (2012) in her book Asperkids provides many good examples on how to use a child’s passion to motivate. O’Toole also happens to be on the spectrum and is the mother of three children with AS. She provides the following strategy to use a spectrum kid’s special interests “as a way in” to a child’s mind.

Step 1: Determine what aspect of the passion interests the child the most through careful observation. One of my early obsessions was the Rotor carnival ride. The ride consists of a big barrel that spins around and the passengers are glued against the wall by centrifugal force. I enjoyed the feeling of the pressure. A clever teacher could have turned this into a lesson on the physics of centrifugal force.
Learning about physics through the use of the Rotor ride would have worked for me, but it would not have worked for a child who was passionate about Harry Potter. Jennifer used building a model of the Parthenon to teach solid geometry to a child who had a special interest in Greek mythology. For lower-level math, a child with the same interest could count different mythological characters. To motivate reading, books on mythology could be used.

Step 2: Become knowledgeable about the child’s special interest—otherwise the child may become frustrated by the teacher’s (or parent’s) lack of knowledge. As a very young child, my passion was kites and airplanes and in high school it was horses. However, visiting my aunt’s ranch got me interested in the cattle industry. My passion for my special interest motivated me to become a world expert on cattle handling and facility design. I turned my special interests into a career.

Step 3: Look everywhere for ways to incorporate your child’s special interest in opportunities for learning! My kite interest could be worked into many educational activities involving math. A child who loves mythology would be highly motivated to advance his reading skills so he could read adult-level books about mythology.

We need to harness the tremendous motivation that is provided by a child’s special interests. Using special interests to educate individuals on the spectrum is a win-win scenario. After all, the spectrum kid’s passion is really a direct invitation to teachers and parents to increase his engagement and buy-in to lifelong learning. We might all be surprised at what a child can do.

O’Toole, Jennifer Cook. 2012. Asperkids. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Resources for Children
Kamkwamba, W. 2009. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. New York: William Morrow.
Montgomery, S. 2012. Temple Grandin. New York: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.

Temple Grandin, PhD, is an internationally respected specialist in designing livestock handling systems. She is the most noted high-functioning person with autism in the world today. Learn more about Temple at http://www.templegrandin.com


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