We all learn throughout our lives; it does not begin or end with grade school. However, individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) face challenges not encountered by people with typical neurodevelopment. Special interest areas (SIAs) create difficultly in accessing, recognizing and engaging in standard curriculum. Curriculum for adults is often hard to find, expensive, or needs modification. In this paper, I will highlight ways a teacher or direct support professional can adapt curricula to fit with SIAs and engage student and/or adult learning. I will also discuss how to modify existing curriculum that exists at little to no cost.
Adapting Curricula in the Classroom
Special interest areas (SIAs) can be defined as “passions that capture the mind, heart, time, and attention of those individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome, providing the lens through which they view the world” (Winter-Messiers, 2014). SIAs can be present in any individual with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), not just Asperger’s Syndrome. Commonly referred to as “fixations,” SIAs can be any object, subject or construct in which an individual focuses an atypical amount of time. These SIAs can create difficulty concentrating in classrooms or navigating social interactions.
Elementary and secondary education have curricula for four main academic areas. These areas are:
- Social Studies/history
- Language arts (includes reading, writing, spelling, “English”)
Other academic areas may include specialties (e.g., music, art, physical education) or vocational training (e.g., shop, ROTC, computers). Adults areas of focus involve these same areas but in slightly different ways. Adults do not necessarily need to know algebra, but they do need to know math skills that will help them budget and manage their money. Social skill training is another area of need. SIAs can be woven into the curriculum of these academic and life skill areas to meet the needs of each individual student with ASD.
Let’s take trains as an example SIA and examine how it may be woven into adapted curricula for a student. Word problems in math can be adapted to calculate the number of passenger cars and/or the number of passengers per car on the train; average speed and/or distance can be sought; fractions, area, and volume of a train can also be sought and calculated. Writing assignments can be on types of trains, history of trains in the United States, and/or why travel by train is better than travel by car or plane. Reading assignments may involve history of trains—or a particular type of train—or fictional stories featuring trains. Science may examine the use of fossil fuels in trains, or the types of metal used in the history of trains. Social studies may examine the impact trains have had at different points in American history, or using the transcontinental railroad as road map to learn about and make connections with people, places, and events.
Any functional life or social skill curriculum can be adapted to fit an SIA of an individual with ASD. Let’s look again at trains. Social stories can be developed to address the need to talk about subjects other than trains with conversational partners. Dress and grooming standards of conductors and workers can be used to teach dress and grooming/hygiene. Mechanics of trains can be used to teach bicycle or car maintenance. By integrating the SIA into the subject matter and/or measurement outcomes, the student or adult may be more engaged and responsive.
Adapting and Modifying Curricula for Adults Outside the Classroom
Formal curricula for adults with disabilities can either be purchased from educational publishing companies or found free from online magazines and Web publishers. Since ASD is more prevalent in men, I will focus on adapting Web articles from online men’s magazines.
The Art of Manliness is one of the leading online men’s magazines. It focuses on skills, such as situational awareness, emergency preparedness, grooming, and social skills. Articles from this Web page can be modified by changing the reading level of the content. A direct support professional or disability specialist can use a thesaurus to modify words and/or phrases to meet the level of each individual. Articles may be adapted or modified to meet the skill level of the individual. For example, articles on shaving may need to be adapted from a straight razor to a cartridge or electric razor. Another example is separating an article into more manageable parts, thus simplifying and lengthening the curriculum.
SIAs can naturally be the focus of the article (i.e., the article is about watches, which is the SIA of the adult) or the topic of the article can be adapted to fit an SIA. The Boy Scouts of America have great curricula that meet the interests of many adults. Curriculum standards for each topic may be modified to meet strengths and weaknesses (i.e., swimming might need to be modified to allow for assistance and shorter demonstration distances of each type of stroke). Curriculum can also be adapted to allow for SIAs or assistive technology (i.e., electronics merit badge can incorporate SIA of computers and allow graphic organizers, dictionaries, or videos to help learn and complete objectives).
Adapting and modifying curricula can be difficult. I am in no way an expert or seasoned professional at the practice. However, adapting and/or modifying curricula to meet the needs of adults with ASD or other developmental disabilities is an essential skill for any professional. We tend to forget about the educational needs of adults and focus services on making life safe and “comfortable.” I would argue that “comfortable” includes continuing education. If individuals with ASD have curricula adapted or modified to meet SIAs in school, then they have a better chance at being successful adults. Likewise, adults have a better chance of living a full and enjoyable life if curricula are found and adapted/modified to meet their needs. More emphasis on this topic needs to be discussed in schools, and especially in adult service agencies—which is what I plan to do.
Winter-Messiers, M. A. (2014). Harnessing the power of special interest areas in the classroom. In K. D. Buron & P. Wolfberg,Learners on the Autsim Spectrum: Preparing Highly Qualified Educators and Related Practitioners (2nd ed., pp. 83-105). Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.