Helping a Child With Autism Learn Through His Likes and Interests


When Ethan was 5 years old, he loved Woody, the character from “Toy Story.” He wore the same boots as Woody and imitated Woody’s poses. He only had about 40 words in his vocabulary, which were mostly related to “Toy Story.”

He learned how to spell his name thanks to Woody and “Toy Story” as we explored the woods.

I began by planning “treasure hunts” in the woods. Our mission: to find Woody.

Each time the session started with me saying to Ethan, “Let’s go in the woods to look for Woody!” The very idea of finding his favorite cartoon character somewhere in the woods made him so excited. He shouted, “Wood-yyyyy!”

One day, we found clues on our path that would help us in our search for Woody. We first found a sign hung in a tree with the word “WOODY” but there was a hole in the sign, a letter was missing. As soon as Ethan saw the sign, he pointed to it and grabbed it. He was taking a very active part in his very important quest.

I said to Ethan, “Oh look, what is that! I think it says Woody! It might be a clue. But look, there is a hole in the sign! It’s W, O, something, D, Y. Let’s see if we can find another clue!”

We kept going, searching for another clue along the trail until we arrived at a crossing point where we found two signs indicating two different directions: one indicating the way to go to find the correct missing letter (letter O) in the word previously found (WO_DY), the other one indicating the way to go to find an incorrect missing letter (letter A).

“Oh look we can choose where to go! Where do you think we should go to find the missing letter?”

Ethan pointed the direction where he wanted to go.

“OK, let’s try to go this way. I think we might find the letter O somewhere!”

And we kept going along the trail by following the sign indicating the direction “letter O.”

Further down the trail, hung in a tree, we found the correct missing letter that fit into the hole to get the word Woody, it was like a puzzle.

“Yay! We found it! Let’s see if it works.” As soon as Ethan grabbed the missing letter he tried to fit it into the hole in the sign I was holding for him.

“W-O-O-D-Y. Yes, it works! We found the right letter!”

And then after finding the right letter, we knew we were on the right track to find Woody. “Now that we’ve got the sign ‘Woody’ right, Woody might not be very far!”

We kept going along the trail in the woods. Ethan was looking around with his eyes wide open. I could feel his excitement and eagerness to find Woody. At the end of the trail we saw something hanging in a tree, “Wood-yyyyyy!” screamed Ethan, pointing towards it.

There were no words to express the happiness that enlightened his face when he finally grabbed Woody in his hands.

As Ethan was so happy to have found out where in the woods Woody was hiding this time, we kept exploring the woods and found another sign with his name: Ethan

We followed the same process and made his name after finding the right letter.

This is how he learned to spell and read in the forest, looking for his favorite cartoon character without any pressure of having to succeed.

Ethan could have chosen the wrong letter and direction to go, but it didn’t matter. We would have explored the other path and found a letter that we couldn’t fit into the hole in the sign, so we would have just come back and followed the other direction instead.

There was no pressure on Ethan to answer any questions, as he was mostly nonverbal. The questions were meant to guide us in the educational game. There was also no pressure for Ethan to point the direction where he wanted to go; we encouraged him to do so, but if he didn’t, we would have suggested a direction to follow. Moreover, being able to move and learn through his interests allowed Ethan to open his brain to learn.

By looking for his favorite character, Ethan was intrinsically motivated to learn. In fact, using a child’s interests has the power to make learning a more rewarding experience, allowing them to develop their desire to learn for themselves.

That’s how on his fabulous quest for Woody, Ethan learned also about some concepts of math (like addition), about some concepts of biology (like the body parts), or geography (like the continents).

Learn with the child by moving and exploring through his interests and you’ll find out about this amazing joy of learning.

Learn more at The Little Explorer’s Activity Club.

Getty image by SbytovaMN


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