Thomas the Train, Roblox, elevators, Legos…
Of course all children show more of an interest in some TV shows, games, or activities than others. One of the hallmark characteristics of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder is the presence of restrictive interests.
This lasting, intense interest in a certain topic is a common behavior in children with Autism, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH) (up to 88%, according to some studies). And, it can contribute to some children with ASD having difficulties engaging in conversations with others and making friends.
On the other hand, children with Autism can show the unique ability to memorize an exceptional amount of information about a topic or activity that they like. For example, facts about ocean animals or how to quickly solve a complex math equation.
Having narrow interests in a certain topic can both serve as a strength and lead to some challenges for those on the Autism Spectrum. And there are some specific strategies parents can use to help children with ASD expand their interests and improve conversational skills.
Difficulties Caused by Narrow Interests
What’s the harm in having narrow interests?
Restrictive interests can lead to some of the following:
- Difficulty making friends
- Trouble initiating conversation with others
- Reduced topic maintenance
- Decreased flexibility
- Uneven language development (increased vocabulary that relates to their interests, but a decreased vocabulary of other, more functional words)
Here’s an example. Many younger children with Autism highly prefer activities that involve letters and numbers. These children may have trouble engaging in play with peers who want to participate in other activities, such as pretend play with dolls or building with blocks.
As a child on the Autism Spectrum gets older, he or she might have a focused interest on a certain topic, such as the solar system. He or she may miss out on opportunities to make friends through other activities such as playing certain sports or conversing about other topics, because it does not relate to their preferred interest.
Uneven language development can occur, for example, when a child with Autism uses echolalia. This can involve scripting (repeating) phrases heard previously, but not using functional language as often.
For example, a child may be able to memorize several lines from a favorite TV show but have trouble answering basic questions such as their name, or communicating on a daily basis with others.
A child might have an extensive vocabulary of rainforest animals because this relates to their narrow interest, but could have a decreased vocabulary when it comes to other subjects.
Some children with restricted interests like to enjoy these interests alone. Other times, children with ASD like to share them with others. But, they may have trouble understanding another person’s point of view. So they may not pick up on body language, facial expressions, or verbal cues that indicate the listener wants to talk about something else.
Strengths Resulting from Restrictive Interests
There’s been a recent movement encouraging the world to be more neurodiversity affirming. With that, some research has highlighted the strengths that can be seen in children with ASD related to having narrow interests.
Some individuals with ASD who show restrictive interests have exceptional abilities in those areas.
Hyperlexia occurs when a child who has an intense interest in the alphabet is able to decode and read words early, before their expected age. Between 6-20% of children with Autism demonstrate hyperlexia.
These children typically do not understand the meaning of words that they are able to read, however.
Some individuals with ASD who have narrow interests are known as savants. It’s a phenomenon where the child has an exceptional ability in one more area, compared to his or her intellectual functioning.
Some studies estimate that savant syndrome occurs in up to 37% of individuals with Autism. These individuals may demonstrate these outstandingly high skills in an area such as art, music, mechanics, or memorization.
Tips for Interactions & Developing Skills
Overall, research indicates that for children with ASD, having narrow interests can “greatly interfere” with activities pursued by themselves or with others.
Here are some ways to help children on the Autism Spectrum improve conversational skills and expand their interests.
#1: Incorporate personal interests into conversation
Individuals with Autism can experience anxiety and behavior difficulties if they are blocked from a repetitive or restrictive behavior.
Instead of attempting to prevent or continuously redirect a child with Autism from talking about a preferred interest, try incorporating this interest to help the child engage in conversation with others.
A child with Autism may have difficulty interacting and conversing with others. However, if you spark the interaction by asking the child about a preferred topic, it can encourage the child to become more socially engaged with others.
Once the conversation is going, this can be a great opportunity to help the child learn to take another person’s point of view. By making comments like, “I’ve never played that video game. How do you do it?”, you can encourage the child to become more aware of the listener they are speaking with.
#2: Look for teaching moments
Building off of a child’s restricted interests can help him or her develop important skills!
Try relating the child’s preferred topic to something functional that applies to his or her own life. For example, let’s say a child is reciting lines from a preferred TV show about what the characters are eating. You could ask him or her, “do you like to eat that too?” or “what did you have for lunch today?”.
#3: Use restricted interests as motivators
Narrow interests can be used as motivators to encourage children to participate in certain non preferred activities.
In academic settings, a child’s preferred interests can be embedded into academic activities. For example, books about a highly preferred topic can encourage a child with Autism to read more, or be more attentive when completing a reading comprehension task.
Children on the Autism Spectrum who have narrow interests may have difficulties in social communication skills, behavior, and functional language skills.
If you have concerns about your child’s restrictive interests affecting any of these areas, your child may benefit from specialized services, including an evaluation and ongoing individualized therapy.