Restricted Interests in Children with ASD: Deficits or Strengths?

Restricted and repetitive interests are part of the current diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder.1 As a marker of disability, restricted interests were traditionally viewed as a deficit in need of remediation. However, recent research suggests that this is an unwarranted and narrow view. Rather, restricted interests ironically have wide applications offering a variety of positive possibilities.

Interests as Deficits

There is no doubt that restricted, perseverative interests can pose challenges for children with ASD. Research shows that limited interests can greatly interfere with activities8 and decrease enjoyment in some activities4 for children with ASD.

Interests as Strengths

In contrast, mounting evidence demonstrates that restricted interests can also be strengths for children with ASD12 and effective intervention tools.11

For example, a meta-analysis of 24 studies found that incorporating personal interests was an effective intervention for increasing social behavior and decreasing aberrant behavior in children with ASD.3 More recently, Gunn and Delafield-Butt (2015) reviewed 20 published studies that incorporated personal interests and found that all reported gains in engagement and motivation for children with ASD.5 Preliminary research has also found personal interests to be effective for promoting social interaction and decreasing social anxiety in adolescents with ASD.7,9,10 Furthermore, use of personal interests may promote quality of life, positive emotions, and regulation.6,13,14

Pediatric Courses

Implications for Practice

Collectively, this research suggests that rather than discourage a personal interest in a child with ASD, practitioners should help shape the use of that interest in daily life. Using what is meaningful may tap internal motivation and drive. Identification and use of preferred interests can provide a “pathway” for increased engagement in therapeutic activities and daily life.11 Tapping into the child’s internal abilities is critical for a strength-based intervention approach.2

Application in Practice

Not surprisingly, some have argued that restricted interests are more accurately termed “special” interests.12 Certainly, a practitioner’s thoughtful assessment of the special possibilities and meaning of an interest are critical for its use in best practice. In occupational therapy, interests can be used to creatively modify therapeutic activities as well as daily activities and routines for children with ASD.

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
  2. Cosden, M., Koegel, L. K., Koegel, R. L., Greenwell, A., & Klein, E. (2006). Strength-based assessment for children with autism spectrum disorders. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities31(2), 134-143.
  3. Dunst, C. J., Trivette, C. M., & Hamby, D. W. (2012). Meta-Analysis of Studies Incorporating the Interests of Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders into Early Intervention Practices. Autism Research and Treatment, 2012, 462531.
  4. Eversole, M., Collins, D.M., Karmarkar, A. Colton, L., Quinn, J.P., Karsbaek, R., Johnson, J.R., Callier, N.P., & Hilton, C.L. (2016). Leisure activity enjoyment of children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(1), 10-20.
  5. Gunn, K.C.M., & Delafield-Butt, J. T. (2015). Teaching Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder With Restricted Interests: A Review of Evidence for Best Practice, Review Of Educational Research. doi: 10.3102/0034654315604027
  6. Hirschler-Guttenberg, Y., Golan, O., Ostfeld-Etzion, S., & Feldman, R. (2015). Mothering, fathering, and the regulation of negative and positive emotions in high-functioning preschoolers with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 56(5), 530-539. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12311.
  7. Kaboski, J.R., Diehl, J.J., Beriont, J., Crowell, C. R., Villano, M., Wier, K., & Tang, K. (2015). Brief Report: A Pilot Summer Robotics Camp to Reduce Social Anxiety and Improve Social/Vocational Skills in Adolescents with ASD. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(12), 3862-3869. doi: 10.1007/s10803-014-2153-3.
  8. Klin, A., Danovitch, J.H., Merz, A. B., & Volkmar, F.R. (2007). Circumscribed Interests in Higher Functioning Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders: An Exploratory Study. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 32, 89-100.
  9. Koegel, R., Fredeen, R., Kim, S., Danial, J., Rubinstein, D., & Koegel, L. (2012). Using Perseverative Interests to Improve Interactions Between Adolescents with Autism and their Typical Peers in School Settings. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 14(3), 133–141.
  10. Koegel, R., Kim, S., Koegel, L., & Schwartzman, B. (2013). Improving Socialization for High School Students with ASD by Using their Preferred Interests. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(9), 2121–2134.
  11. Tomchek, S. D., & Koenig, K. P. (2016). Occupational therapy practice guidelines for individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Bethesda, MD: AOTA Press.
  12. Winter-Messiers, M. (2007). From tarantulas to toilet brushes: Understanding the special interest areas of children and youth with Asperger's syndrome. Remedial and Special Education, 28, 140-152.
  13. Sasson, N. J., Dichter, G. S., & Bodfish, J. W. (2012). Affective Responses by Adults with Autism Are Reduced to Social Images but Elevated to Images Related to Circumscribed Interests. PLoS ONE, 7(8), e42457.
  14. Tavernor, L., Barron, E., Rodgers, J., & McConachie, H. (2013). Finding out what matters: validity of quality of life measurement in young people with ASD. Child Care Health Development, 39, 592-601. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2214.2012.01377.x.