4 Tips for Balancing Interests with Socially Appropriate Activities

Liz Pagedas and Libby Gilchrist-Thompson contribute information related to working and playing with adults who have autism and other developmental delays. Balancing interests with socially appropriate activities is a challenge for all professionals providing services to individuals with special needs. In fact, it’s discussed in the ABA literature in one of my favorite articles — Balancing the right to habilitation with the right to personal liberties: the rights of people with developmental disabilities to eat too many doughnuts and take a nap. Below, Liz and Libby share a few of their tips for striking that balance.


  • Incorporate their interests into a more socially acceptable action or use as a reward. For example, we’ve worked with an individual who only wanted to stand in the corner and listen to the radio by himself.  While listening to the radio is not socially inappropriate, this was socially isolating for this individual and interfered with his involvement in program activities.  One of his goals was to increase his participation in other activities outside of this interest and also interact with peers in his group room and throughout program.  An iPad was introduced into his daily routine at program.  The “I heart radio” app was installed and initially used as a reward for participating in various activities.  He now actively participates in numerous activities and has not requested listening to the radio in some time.


  • Eliminate or avoid it during session. Sometimes an individual’s interest detracts from their participation in therapy.   We work with an individual who is very interested in calendars and will stand and stare at a calendar for lengthy periods of time.  Calendars are removed or covered prior to the individual entering the room in order to maximize his attention and participation in therapy.


  • Use a specific amount of time at the beginning of the session (using a timer, time timer, stop watch, etc.) to allow the individual to enjoy the interest and then be prepared to work.  An individual who loves staring at handouts on bulletin boards is given an allotted time to engage this interest and then when the time is up, they being the session.  These guidelines are laid out at the beginning of the session.  This can also be utilized as a reward at the end of the session.


  • Incorporate the interest into a preparatory learning activity.  This acknowledges the interest but also moves the individual forward in learning more complex and/or functional tasks.  An individual has a very strong interest in the NYPD to the degree that he wears various items in program.  He struggles with number recognition and counting items.  When using his police accessories, he is able to count (i.e. he could not count 1 chip set in front of him but when asked how many handcuffs he had he immediately said “1”; when asked how many hands fit into the handcuffs, he said “2”, etc.)

Liz Pagedas (OTR/L) and Libby Gilchrist-Thompson (CCC-SLP) both work with adults with autism and other developmental disabilities.  They run multidisciplinary groups and individual sessions for their clients.  


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