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Just Give Him the Whale!

Just Give Him the Whale!

20 Ways to Use Fascinations, Areas of Expertise, and Strengths to Support Students with Autism
Authors: Paula Kluth Ph.D., Patrick Schwarz Ph.D.

ISBN: 978-1-55766-960-5
Pages: 160
Copyright: 2008
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Size:  8.5 x 11.0
Stock Number:  69605
Format:  Paperback
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SAVE when you order the guide and the illustrated children's story together!

When learners with autism have deep, consuming fascinations—trains, triangles, basketballs, whales—teachers often wonder what to do. This concise, highly practical guidebook gives educators across grade levels a powerful new way to think about students' "obsessions": as positive teaching tools that calm, motivate, and improve learning.

Written by top autism experts and nationally renowned speakers Paula Kluth and Patrick Schwarz, this guide is brimming with easy tips and strategies for folding students' special interests, strengths, and areas of expertise into classroom lessons and routines. Teachers will discover how making the most of fascinations can help their students

  • learn standards-based academic content
  • boost literacy learning and mathematics skills
  • develop social connections
  • expand communication skills
  • minimize anxiety
  • and much more

Just Give Him the Whale! is packed from start to finish with unforgettable stories based on the authors' experience, firsthand perspectives from people with autism themselves, research-based recommendations that are easy to use right away, and sample forms teachers can adapt for use in their own classrooms. An enjoyable read with an eye-opening message, this short book will have a long-lasting impact on teachers' understanding of autism—and on their students' social and academic success.

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Review by: Maureen Bennie, Director, Autism Awareness Centre, Inc.
"Excellent . . . This book gives great ideas on how to use student strengths without an overwhelming text to wade through."
Review: Howard County Autism Society Perspectives
"Immensely practical . . . Speaks to a value system rooted in the principles of self-determination."
Review: Education Review
"A readable and practical guidebook . . . recommended for academic and public libraries."
Review: Autism Asperger's Digest
"The ultimate in 'practical,' yet it is highly readable and uplifting . . . each [chapter] is packed with teaching tools that demonstrate how to use passions to motivate, expand horizons and engage in academics."
Review by: Jenn Seybert, Autism self-advocate; Executive Board, Autism National Committee
"Provides wonderful insights on how autistic individuals . . . can be helped by means of creative strategies that can empower them to experience success."
Review by: Kate McGinnity, co-author, Walk Awhile in My Autism
"A powerful resource. Kluth and Schwarz's innovative focus on the passions and talents of people with autism is sure to deepen relationships and enrich lives."
Review by: Catriona Johnson, Chair, Autism Society of America Government Relations Committee; parent of a child with autism
"I am so grateful for this book . . . Kluth and Schwarz give educators and parents the tools to empower students with autism. I can't think of a greater gift."
Review by: Carol Gray, President, The Gray Center for Social Learning and Understanding
"This book is for any teacher who wants to be remembered fondly by her students as the one who 'got it', who built meaning and motivation into learning. I wish this book had been on my shelf my first year of teaching!"
Review by: Carol Tashie, author, Seeing the Charade: What We Need to Do and Undo to Make Friendships Happen
"Once again Paula and Patrick have hit the nail squarely on the head . . . A practical book that is crystal clear in its values and powerful in its vision. I recommend it for every teacher who wants to make a difference in all students' lives."

About the Authors
About the Cover Artist
A Note About Terminology

Fascinations, areas of expertise, and strengths can be used

  1. To Develop a Relationship with the Student

  2. To Expand Social Opportunities

  3. To Expand Communication Skills and Opportunities

  4. To Help Minimize Anxiety

  5. To Plan for Inclusive Schooling

  6. To Build Classroom Expertise

  7. To Boost Literacy Learning

  8. To Comfort

  9. To Inspire Career Ideas

  10. To Encourage Risk Taking

  11. To Connect Students to Standards-Based Content

  12. To Encourage In-Depth Study

  13. To Make Sense of a Confusing World

  14. To Let Students Shine and Showcase Talents

  15. To Give Students "Power"

  16. To Encourage Chit-Chat

  17. To Boost Mathematics Skills and Competencies

  18. To Teach Manners, Cooperation, and the Expression of Empathy

  19. To Encourage Greatness

  20. To Make Life Worth Living

Appendix A Frequently Asked Questions
Appendix B Additional Resources Focused on Strengths, Abilities, and Interests

Excerpted from the Introduction and Chapter 2 of "Just Give Him the Whale": 20 Ways to Use Fascinations, Areas of Expertise, and Strengths to Support Students with Autism, by Paula Kluth, Ph.D., & Patrick Schwarz, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2008 by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


I believe Autism is a marvelous occurrence of nature, not a tragic example of the human mind gone wrong. In many cases, Autism can also be a kind of genius undiscovered.

—Jasmine Lee O’Neill (1999, p. 14)

Many individuals with autism and Asperger syndrome have deep interest in one or a variety of topics. Stephen Shore (2001), a man with Asperger syndrome, shares that at some point in his life, he has been fascinated by airplanes, medicine, electronics, psychology, geography, watches, astronomy, chemistry, computers, music, locks, shiatsu, bicycles, mechanics, hardware, rocks, cats, yoga, earthquakes, electricity, tools, geology, dinosaurs, and autism. Some people on the autism spectrum appear to share certain fascinations (e.g., trains, machines, weather, computers). Other fascinations seem to be more rare and specific to individuals. For instance, Sean Barron, a man with Asperger syndrome, reported that he once had a deep interest in the number 24 and at another point in his life, he became fascinated by dead–end streets (Barron & Barron, 1992).

Often, a student’s educational team will focus on curbing a student’s involvement with these interests or fixations. Many a meeting has been planned and a behavior program written to squelch a student’s "obsessions." In some of these instances, the student may not even be aware that the decision to limit or eliminate the fascination has been made. Therefore, he or she may be confused or distressed when a favorite object or topic is banned or significantly restricted.

Liane Holliday Willey (2001), author, parent of a daughter with Asperger syndrome, and an "Aspie" herself, cautions that it can be dangerous for people without autism to pass judgment about interests and obsessions. In fact, she shares that in many ways and in many circles, having intense interests is considered positive and even admirable:

"At the base, I have to wonder, are we so very different from marathon athletes, corporate presidents, bird watchers, or new parents counting every breath their newborn takes? It seems lots of people, NT [Neurotypical] or otherwise, have an obsession of sorts. In my mind, that reality rests as a good one, for obsessions, in and out of themselves are not bad habits. There is much good about them. Obsessions take focus and tenacious study. They are the stuff greatness needs. I have to believe the best of the remarkable—the artists, musicians, philosophers, scientists, writers, researchers and athletes— had to obsess on their chosen fields or they would never had become great." (p. 122)

Similarly, Luke Jackson (2002), a young man with Asperger syndrome, criticized the idea that it is okay for people without disability labels to have deep interests but that this is not okay for people with labels:

"I have a question for teenagers here. Q: When is an obsession not an obsession? A: When it is about football. How unfair is that?! It seems that our society fully accepts the fact that a lot of men and boys ‘eat, sleep and breathe’ football and people seem to think that if someone doesn’t, then they are not fully male. Stupid!" (p. 47)

Jackson goes on to point out how rigid society is when it comes to issues of difference and normalcy:

"I am sure if a parent went to a doctor and said that their teenage boy wouldn’t shut up about football, they would laugh and tell them that it was perfectly normal. It seems as if we all have to be the same. Why can no one see that the world just isn’t like that? I would like everyone to talk about computers all day actually, but I don’t expect them to and people soon tell me to shut up." (pp. 47–48)

We agree with Willey and Jackson and feel strongly that if educators could reframe obsessions as fascinations, passions, interests, or enthusiasms (Park, 2002) and see them as potential tools, educators and their students may potentially be more satisfied, calm, and successful. In fact, it is our opinion that students’ areas of interest can be of tremendous help to teachers, and that is our reason for writing an entire book on this topic.

It should be noted, however, that even though we have always felt it important to respectfully negotiate with students and honor their uniqueness in any way possible, the idea for writing this book came not from a conversation we had with one another but from a conversation we had with Ms. Gomez, a principal of a Chicago public school. This wonderful school leader attended a meeting on inclusive schooling that we (the authors) chaired together. A committed group of advocates, teachers, parents, and administrators had come together to create a plan for an inclusive school and at one point, we began discussing how schools need to be more sensitive to the needs of learners with autism. Ms. Gomez nodded vigorously in agreement. She then told this story:

"Pedro, a little boy with autism, was screaming in his kindergarten classroom on the first day of school. Ms. Gomez, the principal, heard the child’s cries and walked into the room. She observed two colleagues discussing the appropriate way to deal with the situation. It appeared that Pedro had started crying because the kindergarten teacher had taken away his favorite whale toy. Believing that her new student would be more successful without the ‘distraction’ of his favorite possession, she had decided to try and hide it from him. The teacher’s co–teaching partner, a special education teacher, had a different perspective on the situation. ‘What do you want him to do?’ she asked her colleague. ‘I want him to do his work. I want him to participate,’ answered the kindergarten teacher. The special education teacher thought for a minute and replied, ‘Then just give him the whale.’"

We loved this story, especially when Ms. Gomez told us that soon after the incident, the children in the kindergarten class began bringing Pedro photos of whales to cheer, support, and connect with him. The kindergarten teacher, for her part, began incorporating whales into her lessons, examples, and classroom environment (e.g., reading whale stories, using whale stickers on worksheets). The just–give–him–the–whale story became a centerpiece of our discussions for the next few days. We thought it was such a great metaphor for an ideology that, if adopted in schools, could change the ways in which students are perceived, curriculum and instruction are developed, and supports are designed. This small and simple book was written in response to that story, in celebration of Ms. Gomez and others like her, and out of respect for our friends and colleagues with autism who have been trying to tell us and show us for so long that human diversity is good for the community and good for the classroom. Interests can sometimes be limiting, but they also can be freeing, calming, motivating, captivating, and inspiring. In these pages, we hope to communicate that the fascinations, interests, and areas of expertise that are so often important to students with autism (and other students as well) should be valued, honored, and respected and used as a tool to teach, support, and include students in the classroom.


Some students who find conversation and common methods of social interaction a challenge are amazingly adept when the interaction occurs in relation to an activity or a favorite interest. For instance, Patrick, an eighth–grader, had few friendships and seldom spoke to his classmates until a new student came into his English classroom wearing a Star Wars T shirt. Patrick’s face immediately lit up and he began bombarding the newcomer with questions and trivia about his favorite film. The new student, eager to make a friend, began bringing pieces of his science fiction memorabilia collection to class. Eventually, the two students struck up a friendship related to their common interest and even formed a lunch club where a handful of students gathered to play video and board games related to science fiction films.

Another powerful example of activity–inspired relationships is shared in Smiling at Shadows (Waites & Swinbourne, 2001), the warm and candid memoir of an Australian family. Junee Waites, the mother of a young man with autism, shares a story of how her son’s love of cycling led to many valued social connections. Initially, cycling was simply a personal hobby for Dane. He rode with his family and in much of his free time. Soon, however, he joined a cycling club, began entering races, and found he was able to develop a durable network of friends through the sport and its related activities (Waites & Swinbourne, 2001). Because making friends had been a struggle in Dane’s life, his family was understandably nervous as he started his foray into the world of bike clubs and competitions, but these feelings of anxiety were allayed during the first big event Dane entered. As Dane’s mother recounted, the experience was one to remember for Rod, Dane’s proud father:

"Anxiously [Rod] watched as Dane lined up on his mountain bike, took off at the sound of the starter’s gun, and rode through the town and out of sight. Other competitors joined the race then, the professionals at the rear attracting the most attention.

"Unpleasant scenes began to play on Rod’s mind as he walked around [waiting for the race to end]. What if Dane had a fall? Would he become disoriented and lose his way?

"The professional riders roared home first. After this burst of excitement Rod positioned himself to await the amateurs. As the loudspeaker announced their imminent arrival he scanned the horizon with mild interest, thinking he wouldn’t be seeing Dane for some time. To his utter astonishment there was Dane pedaling furiously over the crest of the hill and down the road." (p. 187)

Rod remembers seeing only "this huge smile on a bicycle." Tears poured down his face as he watched his son’s finish. As powerful, however, was the sight of the riders gathering afterward to relax with a cold drink. Without hesitation Dane joined them; they laughed, patted him on the back, and exclaimed, "We saw you out there on the highway! You were going for it, mate!" (p. 187). Not only, then, did the experience give Dane a boost in confidence but it also gave him a way to connect with others who had a passion for cycling.

Both of these examples are important because many students with autism are accused of being antisocial or disinterested in building relationships. Although some individuals undoubtedly seek time alone and do not find all social experiences satisfying, many people with autism labels do crave interaction and relationships but need accommodations in this area. Some may need changes in the environment to successfully socialize (e.g., less noise), others may prefer to interact in relation to an activity (instead of sitting down for a face–to–face conversation), and still others, like Patrick and Dane, may want to connect to others in relation to their interests. Jasmine Lee O’ Neill (1999), a woman with autism, suggested that any fascination can be used as a catalyst for a relationship:

"Use things the autistic individual enjoys to spark her interest. If she likes music and hums to herself, use music as an introduction to relating to other people. It is a falsehood that autistics do not relate. Rather, they relate in their own ways." (p. 83)

The notion that people relate in their own ways reminds us of Glory, a woman we have known for years. Glory has autism and is largely nonverbal. When we met her, we were told that her only "hobby" was manhole covers and that she was not interested in people, only in objects. When Kathy, a caring neighbor, began working with her, however, that assumption was put to rest.

Glory’s favorite pastime was taking manhole–cover–walks through her neighborhood. Kathy would follow Glory as she weaved her way through the city blocks, located covers, and strolled around them leisurely. After a few weeks of engaging in the walks, Kathy not only found that she valued the quiet experience (as Glory tolerated no talking during this activity) but also began to see how social her new friend intended the experience to be. Glory always grinned widely when Kathy came over and scurried to put on her sandals. As the weeks went on, she began to walk closer and closer to Kathy and even began to point to interesting sights in the parks and throughout the neighborhood. Kathy found that Glory seemed to be using the walks to get not only much–desired peace and quiet in her life but also perhaps something even more valuable—the undivided attention of a friend.

Kathy’s hypothesis is bolstered by the words and experiences of Dawn Prince–Hughes (2004), a woman with autism and author of the autobiography Songs of the Gorilla Nation. Prince–Hughes recalled that one of her most cherished memories of being with her mother was taking a walk with her in a Florida park. Although the family engaged in all of the typical Florida family vacation activities such as taking a ride through the Everglades and visiting the Kennedy Space Center, it is walking silently through trees with a loved one that stood out in her mind:

"We explored a trail near our campsite and found an almost mystical glade; showers of sun rained through the green of a canopy far above our heads. The trail wound in no hurry among the feet of trees and humble, concentrating rocks. I don’t remember talking. We took turns swinging on a vine that hung between two trees. We laughed. "

The entire time we were there probably didn’t exceed twenty minutes, but it stands out as one of my favorite memories of my mother. I think that being outside where I felt safe, the absence of dialogue, and being alone with her allowed the walls around me to disappear so that I really connected with her deeply." (p. 38)

Additional Ideas for Expanding Social Skills and Opportunities via Interests or Passions

  • Conduct a survey of the extracurricular options in the student’s school. Is a broad range of options available? Are choices offered for students with different needs, strengths, and interests, or are choices primarily for the athletic, outgoing, and academically talented? Might new options need to be created to meet the needs of a wider range of students? Ask students if they have ideas for new clubs or organizations.

  • Determine whether the student’s area of strength is something that he or she could teach to someone else. Could structured opportunities be engineered for the student to show others what he or she knows or even to tutor classmates in learning a new hobby or interest?

  • Use the Internet to explore ideas for connecting the student with others who enjoy his or her passions. It may be hard to find a handful of students in your school who want to constantly discuss the Enola Gay, its crew, and its mission, but there are plenty of military men and women, history buffs, and airplane lovers who do just that in chat rooms and in electronic communities every day. Although teachers and families certainly need to take the usual safety precautions (and teach these precautions to the student) for using the web, the Internet can be a nice social supplement for those who enjoy ways of interacting that are a bit less direct and require few traditional social skills.

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