ASA's 37th National Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders (July 13-15, 2006)

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Thursday, July 13, 2006: 3:15 PM-4:30 PM
554 A-B
#2211- Toilet Brushes and Tarantulas: Understanding the Special Interests of Children with Asperger's
Elbow skin? International license plates? Children and teens with Asperger's Syndrome are experts in their areas of special interest. Based on a 2005 study, presenters will review their findings regarding the origin, development, and impact of these passions on family and school. Anecdotes and findings from a parallel survey of students’ parents will be shared. The importance of understanding these interests, as well as ways to incorporate special interests to motivate students at home and at school, will be highlighted.

Presenters:Mary Ann Winter-Messiers, BA, maitrise, doctoral, studie, University of Oregon, Coordinator, Project PASS (Preparing Autism Specialists for Schools) - Ms.Winter-Messiers is Project Coordinator of PASS (Preparing Autism Specialists for Schools). She teaches graduate autism courses, oversees practica, directs a student research project, and mentors students. Her research interests include the impact of ASD on family, emotional/social deficits, neurology, understanding special interest areas, and improving collaboration between parents and school professionals. As a mother, she has learned the stresses and delights of raising a child with Asperger’s, equipping her to understand the role of the teacher of students with autism and also the unique ASD world of family life. 2006 Oregon Conference, 2006 Conference of the Council for Exceptional Children

Cynthia Herr, Ph.D., University of Oregon, Director, Secondary Special Education, Project Director, Project PASS - Dr. Herr directs Project PASS (Preparing Autism Specialists for Schools) at the University of Oregon. She teaches graduate courses in autism, curriculum methods, and special education law. She is co-author of two books on special education law: Better IEP Meetings, and Writing Measurable IEP Goals and Objectives.

Over the last decade, many areas in the field of autism have been the foci of research. Very little research has been conducted, however, on the special interest areas of children and youth with Asperger's Syndrome. As a result, few professionals grasp either the vital significance of special interest areas to children and youth with Asperger's, or their value as motivational tools in the home and classroom. Lead by their instructors, a research team of graduate students in an autism specialist training program at the University of Oregon has conducted a qualitative research project to study the critical question, “What are the Origin, Development, and Impact of Special Interest Areas on Children and Youth with Asperger's Syndrome?” The goal of this related ASA presentation is to help parents and professionals better understand how essential a child or youth's special interest is to him or her, the financial and social impact of the child or youth's special interest on the family, and finally, practical ways to integrate special interests at home and school.

In this study, twenty-five students with Asperger's Syndrome of diverse ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds in the Eugene-Springfield, Oregon, area, ranging in age from 7 to 19, participated in personal, audio taped interviews focused on their special interest areas. Substituting the participant's area of interest for "thing", interviewers asked questions such as, "What is your favorite thing in the whole world?", "Do you remember how you started liking this thing?", "When do you like to think about your favorite thing?", and "What do you wish that other people knew about your favorite thing?"

Their parents or guardians completed written surveys concerning the origin, evolution, risks/benefits, and impact of the interest areas on their families. Through questions such as: “Is the child or youth's area of special interest related to a parent or guardian's professional or personal interest?”, “Do these areas of special interest change over time, broaden, or become more restricted?”, and "Does your child or youth's special interest area influence the choice of family activities outside the home?" researchers gathered data concerning the development of areas of special interest.

Researchers examined three areas in particular. First, they looked at the origin and development of special interest areas, or how a child first develops a particular interest and how that interest evolves and changes over time.

Second, they studied three primary ways in which children and youth relate to their special interest areas: academic, including how the child or youth learned and organized information about his or her special interest area; functional, including how much time the child or youth spent thinking about or engaged in activities centered on his or her special interest; and social, including how socially acceptable the special interest is to a child or youth's peers, family, and community.

Third, they reviewed the impact of special interest areas on the families of children and youth with Asperger's Syndrome, or how families perceived the emotional, social, and financial impact of the special interest area on them and their intra-family relationships.

The target audience for this presentation includes family members, regular/special education teachers, speech-language specialists, early interventionists, psychologists, therapists, paraprofessionals, and other service providers. Presenters will highlight practical applications with regard to academic performance and social skills. Participants will learn to utilize a child or youth's special interest to increase motivation for and completion of academic tasks, decrease a child or youth's stress and anxiety, and increase opportunities for positive social interactions with peers. Increased understanding of special interest areas will strengthen the development of effective educational strategies, and the use of these special interests as motivators, behavioral reinforcers, positive social stimuli, and pathways to advanced studies and future careers.

Researchers in this session will share their findings, as well as the wonderful experience of conducting the interviews with students, through Power Point presentation, profiles of study participants, reflections and insights of parents and guardians, illustrative anecdotes from the interviews, and personal reflections. Participants in this session will be presented with practical ideas for applying the study's findings to the classroom and home contexts. Specifically, participants will be able to: 1) Explain the critical importance of understanding special interest areas, 2) Describe three ways in which interests impact families, and 3) List 3-5 ways to use special interests to motivate learning at home and school. To this end, PowerPoint notes for the session, as well as summary informational handouts on the study, its findings, and resources for further reading about special interest areas will be distributed to those in attendance.

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