New research examines special interests in autism

February 23, 2022
toy trains on a track

One of the most common characteristics of autism is the existence of restricted interests, or interests that are very narrow and intense. The majority of autistic people have one or more special interests that can vary in topic. Studies have shown that these interests can be valuable in educational and work environments, but there has been little research into how they present in the autistic community.

In this study published in Autism and supported in part by Autism Speaks, researchers set out to better understand restricted interests in a group of 237 autistic youth aged 2 to 18 with a range of intellectual disability. Data was collected based on parent questionnaires about their child’s autism symptoms and special interests.

The results found that 75% of autistic youth had at least one special interest, and 50% of those had two or more special interests. The most common interests included:

  • Sensory-related interests (44%) – bright or vividly colored objects, spinning objects, soft or textured objects, etc.
  • Vehicles/transportation (19%) – cars and trucks, trains, planes and rockets, etc.
  • Characters from movies, books or cartoons (15%) – Thomas the Tank Engine, Marvel Universe characters, Dora the Explorer, etc.
  • TV/DVDs/movies (13%) – The Wiggles, Dr. Who, Star Wars, etc.
  • Individual interests (12%) – cleaning-related interests, rocks, keys, toilets, etc.

Although less frequent, many children and adolescents with autism also expressed interest in computers/tablets/video games (10%), constructive toys like puzzles or Legos (9%), mechanical objects (9%), animals and plants (7%) and specific objects (6%).

Researchers found that restricted interests were more common in people who were male, had an intellectual disability and had more severe social and communication challenges. While the relationship between special interests and social/communication impairment is not well understood, previous research suggests that young children with autism may experience greater rewards from non-social stimuli than social stimuli, causing them to turn to special interests rather than social contact with people for pleasure.

The results also show that while a person’s intellectual disability and age were not related to either the number or type of interests they were drawn to, there was a significant relationship between biological sex and type of interest. In particular, females were more likely to have creative interests like drawing, painting or acting while males were more likely to have an interest in characters, vehicles/transportation, computers/video games, mechanical objects and constructive toys.

While these results broaden the knowledge about restricted interests in autism, the study has some limitations. Parents may have been more likely to report special interests that were either easily observable or disruptive, and less likely to report interests that are more typical or adaptive. Future research should seek out feedback directly from autistic people in order to get a full picture of their complex restricted interests.

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