One primary characteristic of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is special interest areas (SIA)–also known as restricted interests, circumscribed interests, narrow interests, obsessions or compulsions. SIA are manifested in an individual’s ability to retain immense information on a particular subject and discuss that subject almost exclusively with other people. SIA subject matter may be socially appropriate, such as baseball, zoo animals, or trains, or very inappropriate, such as toilets, bodily functions, or crime facts. SIA are not limited to social communication. They may manifest themselves as hobbies, with the individual preferring the SIA over peer play and other social interactions.
Sheldon references his love for trains in many episodes. We see him either playing with or talking about model trains on a few occasions. Raj gets Sheldon a talking Thomas the Train with real puffing smoke for Thanksgiving. Sheldon mentions that he gets upset because he doesn’t get to talk about trains as much as he wants. In one episode, he spends most of Valentine’s Day evening talking about different trains with a new found friend while riding on a restored antique train (and ignoring his girlfriend Amy).
Many boys with ASD have an SIA of Thomas the Train. Research has not yet been able to give an answer as to why boys with ASD have this strong connection to Thomas the Train. Some theories involve the spinning of the wheels, the ability to line or group trains in a particular order, and the orderly precession and schedule of trains. Whatever the reason may be, trains and other SIA can be used to teach academic and functional life skills to individuals with autism, no matter where the individual falls on the spectrum.
Embedding instruction into the individual’s play is one successful way to use SIA as a teaching tool. Another successful method is to use SIA as the subject of math problems, literacy assignments, or social skills training. Since no two individuals with ASD are exactly alike, you will have to experiment and use your best judgment in selecting how to use SIA in academic, social, and functional life lessons. Subscribe for updates on The Spectrum Highlighter for more information on SIA and evidence-based practice interventions.