January 22, 2024

Driving Interest-Driven Learning Among Autistic Youth

Categories: Critical Perspectives, Educational Practice, Equity, Research, Youth Well-Being

In the U.S., education policy has long tended to focus its aims more on raising student performance levels than on cultivating young people’s personal interests. Yet there is clear evidence that attention, information retention, and engagement can all improve when educators and mentors draw upon the interests of their students, and moreover, utilize the opportunities and affordances of digital and online media for interest-based community and connection.

One population for whom the positive outcomes of interest-driven learning with media and technology has not been fully extended is students on the autism spectrum. Autistic young people reportedly underperform academically relative to their level of ability. Beyond K-12, youth on the spectrum have low college attendance rates and are underemployed in adulthood.

The sometimes-intense passions of autistic young people (on topics as varied as transportation, schedules and dates, TV shows, and physics) also tend to be understood in educational and clinical settings as a problem requiring professional intervention. Having “highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus” is one of the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).

In recent years, autism advocates have argued for a recharacterization of “special” interests as the more strengths-based “focused” or “preferred” interests. Research indicates that preferred interests can have psychological advantages for autistic adults in their daily lives, and that autistic adolescents benefit socially from engaging in interest-based school clubs and extracurricular activities.

Little is understood though about the role that digital media specifically plays in autistic young people’s preferred interests and in their interest-driven learning. In my latest book, Kids Across the Spectrums: Growing Up Autistic in the Digital Age (MIT Press, 2023), I detail how technological advancements, educational practices, and societal perceptions shape the lives of today’s young people on the autism spectrum, based on in-depth ethnographic research spanning 2013 to 2020 that centers the voices of over 60 autistic young people ages 3 to 13.

Through this research, I found that digital media such as YouTube, Scratch, and Minecraft are central to autistic children’s everyday hobbies and activities. They serve both as facilitators of interest discovery and as passions in and of themselves—which can also be said for non-autistic children. However, there are unique practical and ethical considerations for this population.

One issue is that autistic children’s interest development may not follow the same linear developmental model as non-autistic children, which requires flexibility and adaptability on the part of educators. Autistic kids reportedly express intense interests earlier on in life than non-autistic children. For example, four-year-old Spencer* (pictured) could not get enough of elevators, from YouTube video elevator tours to crafting elevator buttons out of Play-Doh to as many elevator rides as his parents could offer him at their local airport. But Iin preschool though, Spencer’s teachers saw his interest as a distraction from their curriculum and refused to customize his learning experience around the one thing sure to spark interest, much to his parents’ frustration.

Image: Spencer, a four-year-old autistic boy, presses the “buttons” on his t-shirt (printed with elevator panel button icons) while watching a YouTube elevator tour video. (Credit: Spencer’s mom, with permission)

Another unique consideration is that autistic children’s learning environments span not only educational settings, but therapeutic ones as well. This includes therapy to address developmental areas such as behavior, communication, and sensory processing, and sessions at home, in school, and in therapeutic centers. For 12-year-old Diego*, the line between “play” and “work” was blurred by his interest-driven learning. He was enthralled by making PowerPoint-style digital books about his daily activities on the computer in his family’s living room, and printing out copies that lay in stapled stacks around the room. This activity, though open-ended, was regularly supervised by Diego’s applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapist and structured by the rigid format of ABA as a reward for his completion of other tasks. The incorporation of autistic young people’s focused interests into therapy raises tricky issues about agency, seeing as they have little control over the delivery and goals of therapy.

If implemented in a thoughtful and critically reflective manner, interest-driven learning can potentially help prepare autistic children for lifelong curiosity and independent exploration. Their personal interests can look a lot like those of non-autistic kids when it comes to media and technology. But even when they don’t, children on the spectrum still deserve to benefit from the meaningful incorporation of their passions across the spaces where they live and learn inside and outside of school.


*All names are pseudonyms.

Parts of this post were adapted from Meryl Alper’s book Kids Across the Spectrums: Growing Up Autistic in the Digital Age.

Post by Meryl Alper

Dr. Meryl Alper is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, where she researches the social and cultural implications of communication technologies, with a focus on disability, digital media, and children and families’ tech use. Dr. Alper is the author of Digital Youth with Disabilities (MIT Press, 2014) and the award-winning Giving Voice: Mobile Communication, Disability, and Inequality (MIT Press, 2017). Her latest book, Kids Across the Spectrums: Growing Up Autistic in the Digital Age (MIT Press, 2023), explores the often-misunderstood technology practices of young people on the autism spectrum, as well as what it means to be “social” in a hypermediated society. In her research and teaching, Dr. Alper also draws on 20 years of professional experience in the children’s media industry as a researcher, strategist, and consultant with organizations such as Sesame Workshop, PBS KIDS, Nickelodeon, and Disney. Prior to joining the faculty at Northeastern, Dr. Alper earned a Ph.D. and M.A. from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. She also holds a B.S. in Communication Studies and History from Northwestern University, as well as a certificate in Early Childhood Education from UCLA.