A map of Tokyo subway routes

Incorporate special interests in the classroom

teaching practice

For student year

Middle years

Helps students to

  • be more engaged
  • focus across topics
  • stay motivated
  • Helps teachers to

  • motivate students
  • engage students
  • Summary

    Students on the autism spectrum may have special interests, i.e. one or two specific and intense areas they’re interested in. Students may be stronger in these areas than in other areas of their development, and they may have more knowledge than their peers in these areas. 

    Research suggests that including these interests in curriculum materials and classroom instruction can: 

    • motivate students to complete tasks
    • assist teaching
    • help students to engage.

    How the practice works

    Watch this video to learn more about how to incorporate special interests in the classroom.

    Duration: 4:12

    Preparing to teach

    How to use special interests in the classroom

    Know your student well – liaise with parents and colleagues to identify the student’s special interests.

    After you have identified these special interests, you can:

    • embed the student’s special interests into curriculum tasks as a whole-class plan
    • provide individualised tasks for the student
    • use the special interests to motivate the student using the Premack principle.
    Embedding special interests into the curriculum

    When planning a lesson, consider which of the student’s special interests might be appropriately embedded. 


    A teacher is attempting to engage a student in a unit of work about modern Japanese culture. As this particular student has a special interest in trains, the teacher asks the student to complete a research assignment on the rail systems in Japan.

    Providing individualised tasks

    Using a student’s special interest does not have to be time-consuming.


    In an assignment about Ancient Rome, students are to write a script of an interview between themselves and Julius Caesar. The teacher suggests to the student with a special interest in Spiderman that they write a script with Spiderman interviewing Julius Caesar.

    This example could also work as a whole-class approach – each student could choose their favourite character to be the interviewer.

    Motivating students

    Use a student’s special interest to motivate them to complete less-preferred tasks by using the Premack principle. The student must complete a less-preferred task to a satisfactory standard to be allowed access to their special interest. 

    Make sure you:

    • show the order of tasks
    • clearly describe what the ‘satisfactory standard’ looks like.
    1. Read all of page 54.
    2. Write a five-sentence paragraph to summarise page 54.
    3. Read The Lord of the Rings (the student’s preferred activity).

    It works better if the teacher:

    • knows their student well enough to identify a special interest that will motivate the student
    • sets a realistic amount of work for the student to complete
    • allows enough time for the student to access their special interest after completing the less-preferred task
    • regularly assesses and reviews whether the use of a special interest is helpful and what further adjustments may be needed next time.

    It doesn’t work if:

    • a special interest is used to punish the student, e.g. taking away access to the special interest
    • the teacher changes expectations partway through using the Premack principle – this is likely to increase anxiety and decrease trust.


    In the classroom

    1. Deliver the lesson to students, ensuring that individualised tasks are adequately explained with explicit instruction.
    2. If the task is completed successfully, praise the student.
    3. Monitor student progress.

    Practice toolkit

    Practice implementation planner template

    We know that in the busyness of teaching it is not always easy to keep track of what is working and what is not. So, we have created this template for you to record and reflect on what you are doing to help you create a more inclusive classroom. The implementation planner contains:

    • Guidance around goal setting
    • Reflection section (What worked, didn’t work and what to change and next steps.)
    • Prompting questions

    Implementation planner template

    Implementation planner with examples

    Set your professional learning goal for:

    Incorporate special interests in the classroom
    You can set and save your goal for inclusive practices using inclusionED. Saved goals will appear in your profile. Here you can access, refine and review your goal easily.

    Benefits of goal setting

    Setting, working towards, and reflecting on goals helps you grow professionally and improve your practice. You can access AITSL learning resources for teachers to learn more about:
    How to set goals
    The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership recommends using the SMART matrix to frame your goal setting.

    SMART goals refers to goals that are:
    • Specific
    • Measurable
    • Achievable
    • Relevant
    • Time-phased
    Read more about Improving teaching practices.

    This practice is from the core research project