Special interests (SIs) are part of the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Though they can have both positive and negative effects on functioning and long-term outcomes, research on SIs is limited. This pilot study used a newly developed parent-report measure, the Special Interest Survey, to characterize SIs in 1992 children with ASD. The mean number of current special interests reported was 9, with television, objects, and music being most commonly endorsed interests. The mean age of onset reported across all categories was 5.24 years, with duration of past interests most often exceeding 2 years. Age of onset, interference, and relative unusualness of the SI was varied across categories. Interference was significantly correlated with the unusualness of the SIs.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Alexander, J. M., Johnson, K. E., Leibham, M. E., & Kelley, K. (2008). The development of conceptual interests in young children. Cognitive Development, 23, 324–334.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Anthony, L. G., Kenworthy, L., Yerys, B. E., Jankowski, K. F., James, J. D., Harms, M. B., et al. (2013). Interests in high-functioning autism are more intense, interfering, and idiosyncratic than those in neurotypical development. Developmental Psychopathology, 25, 643–652. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579413000072.
Boyd, B. A., Conroy, M. A., Mancil, G. R., Nakao, T., & Alter, P. J. (2007a). Effects of circumscribed interests on the social behaviors of children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37, 1550–1561. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-006-0286-8.
Baron-Cohen, S., & Wheelwright, S. (1999). Obsessions in children with autism or Asperger syndrome: Content analysis in terms of core domains of cognition. British Journal of Psychiatry, 175, 484–498.
Bishop, S. L., Richler, J., & Lord, C. (2006). Association between restricted and repetitive behaviors and nonverbal IQ in children with autism spectrum disorders. Child Neuropsychology, 12, 247–267. https://doi.org/10.1080/09297040600630288.
Bodfish, J. W., Parker, D. E., Symons, F. J., & Lewis, M. H. (2000). Varieties of repetitive behavior in autism: Comparisons to mental retardation. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 30, 237–243. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1005596502855.
Bodfish, J. W. (2003). Interests Scale. Chapel Hill, NC: Chapel Hill.
Boyd, B. A., Conroy, M. A., Mancil, G. R., Nakao, T., & Alter, P. J. (2007b). Effects of circumscribed interests on the social behaviors of children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 37, 1550–1561. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-006-0286-8.
Charlop-Christy, M. H., & Haymes, L. K. (1996). Using obsessions as reinforcers with and without mild reductive procedures to decrease inappropriate behaviors of children with autism. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 26, 527–546.
Cho, I. Y. K., Jelinkova, K., Schuetze, M., Vinette, S. A., Rahman, S., et al. (2017). Circumscribed interests in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder: A look beyond trains, planes, and clocks. PLoS ONE. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0187414.
Daniels, A. M., Rosenberg, R. E., Anderson, C., Law, J. K., Marvin, A. R., & Law, P. A. (2012). Verification of parent-report of child autism spectrum disorder diagnosis to a web-based autism registry. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42, 257–265.
DeLoache, J. S., Simcock, G., & Macari, S. (2007). Planes, trains, automobiles, and tea sets: Extremely intense interests in very young children. Developmental Psychologyy, 43, 1579–1586. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-16220.127.116.11.
Feliciano, P., Daniels, A. M., Snyder, L. G., Beaumont, A., Camba, A., Esler, A., et al. (2018). SPARK: A US cohort of 50,000 families to accelerate autism research. Neuron, 97, 488–493. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2018.01.015.
Gabriels, R. L., Cuccaro, M. L., Hill, D. E., Ivers, B. J., & Goldson, E. (2005). Repetitive behaviors in autism: relationships with associated clinical features. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 26, 169–181. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2004.05.003.
Gould, J., & Ashton-Smith, J. (2011). Missed diagnosis or misdiagnosis? Girls and women on the autism spectrum. Good Autism Practice (GAP), 12, 34–41.
Grove, R., Hoekstra, R. A., Wierda, M., & Begeer, S. (2018). Special interests and subjective wellbeing in autistic adults. Autism Research, 11, 766–775. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.1931.
Harrop, C., Amsbary, J., Towner-Wright, S., Reichow, B., & Boyd, B. A. (2019). That’s what I like: The use of circumscribed interests within interventions for individuals with autism spectrum disorder. A systematic review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 57, 63–86.
Head, A. M., McGillivray, J. A., & Stokes, M. A. (2014). Gender differences in emotionality and sociability in children with autism spectrum disorders. Molecular Autism, 5(1), 19. https://doi.org/10.1186/2040-2392-5-19.
Hiller, R. M., Young, R. L., & Weber, N. (2014). Sex differences in autism spectrum disorder based on DSM-5 criteria: Evidence from clinician and teacher reporting. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 42, 1381–1393. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-014-9881-x.
Jordan, C. J., & Caldwell-Harris, C. L. (2012). Understanding differences in neurotypical and autism spectrum special interests throughout internet forums. Intellectual and Developmental Disability, 50, 391–402. https://doi.org/10.1352/1934-9556-50.5.391.
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 & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 32, 89–100. https://doi.org/10.2511/rpsd.32.2.89.
Koenig, K. P., & Williams, L. H. (2017). Characterization and utilization of preferred interests: A survey of adults on the autism spectrum. Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, 33, 129–140. https://doi.org/10.1080/0164212X.2016.1248877.
Lai, M. C., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2015). Identifying the lost generation of adults with autism spectrum conditions. The Lancet Psychiatry, 2(11), 1013–1027. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(15)00277-1.
Lai, M. M.-C., Lombardo, M. V., Pasco, G., Ruigrok, A. N. V., Wheelwright, S. J., Sadek, S. A., et al. (2011). A behavioral comparison of male and female adults with high functioning autism spectrum conditions. PLoS ONE, 6(6), e20835. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0020835.
Lam, K. S., Bodfish, J. W., & Piven, J. (2008). Evidence for three subtypes of repetitive behavior in autism that differ in familiarity and association with other symptoms. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49(11), 1193–1200.
Lee, H., Marvin, A. R., Watson, T., Piggot, J., Law, J. K., Law, P. A., et al. (2010). Accuracy of phenotyping of autistic children based on internet implemented parent report. American Journal of Medical Genetics Part B: Neuropsychiatric Genetics. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajmg.b.31103.
Leekham, S. R., Prior, M. R., & Uljarevic, M. (2011). Restricted and repetitive behaviors in autism spectrum disorders: A review of research in the last decade. Psychological Bulletin, 137, 562–593. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023341.
Lord, C., Rutter, M., DiLavore, P. C., Risi, S., Gotham, K., & Bishop, S. L. (2012). Autism diagnostic observation schedule, second edition (ADOS-2) manual (part 1); modules 1–4. Torrance, CA: Western Psychological Services.
Mandy, W., Chilvers, R., Chowdhury, U., Salter, G., Seigal, A., & Skuse, D. (2012). Sex differences in autism spectrum disorder: Evidence from a large sample of children and adolescents. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(7), 1304–1313. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-011-1356-0.
McHale, S. M., Crouter, A. C., & Tucker, C. J. (2001). Free-time activities in middle childhood: Links with adjustment in early adolescence. Child Development, 72, 1764–1778.
Mercier, C., Mottron, L., & Belleville, S. (2000). A psychosocial study on restricted interests in high functioning persons with pervasive developmental disorders. Autism, 4, 406–425.
Mottron. (2017). Should we change targets and methods of early intervention in autism, in favor of a strengths-based education? European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 26, 815–825. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-017-0955-5.
Murray, D. (2018). Monotropism: An interest-based account of autism. In F. R. Volkmar (Ed.), Encyclopedia of autism spectrum disorders. Berlin: Springer.
Murray, D. K., Lesser, M., & Lawson, W. (2005). Attention, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for autism. Autism, 9, 139–156.
Oswald, T. M., Winter-Messiers, M. A., Gibson, B., Schmidt, A. M., Herr, C. M., & Solomon, M. (2016). Sex differences in internalizing problems during adolescence in autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(2), 624–636. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-015-2608-1.
Pazeley, P., & Jackson, K. (2013). Qualitative data analysis with NVivo (2nd ed.). London: Sage.
Rutter, M., LeCouteur, A., & Lord, C. (2003). Autism diagnostic interview: Revised. Los Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services.
Szatmari, P., Georgiades, S., Bryson, S., Zwaigenbaum, L., Roberts, W., Mahoney, W., et al. (2006). Investigating the structure of the restricted, repetitive behaviours and interest’s domain of autism: Investigating the structure of the RRBI domain of autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47, 582–590. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2005.01537.
Sasson, N. J., Turner-Brown, L. M., Holtzclaw, T. N., Lam, K. S. L., & Bodfish, J. W. (2008). Children with autism demonstrate circumscribed attention during passive viewing of complex social and nonsocial picture arrays. Autism Research, 1, 31–42. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.4.
Shattuck, P. T., Seltzer, M. M., Greenberg, J. S., Orsmond, G. I., Bolt, D., Kring, S., et al. (2007). Change in autism symptoms and maladaptive behaviors in adolescents and adults with an autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37, 1735–1747. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-006-0307-7.
South, M., Ozonoff, S., & McMahon, W. M. (2005). Repetitive behavior profiles in asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 35, 145–158. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-004-1992-8.
Smith, C. J., Lang, C. M., Kryzak, L., Reichenberg, A., Hollander, E., & Silverman, J. M. (2009). Familial associations of intense preoccupations, an empirical factor of the restricted, repetitive behaviors and interests domain of autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50(8), 982–990.
Stratis, E. A., & Cavalier, L. L. (2013). Restricted and repetitive behaviors and psychiatric symptoms in youth with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7, 757–766. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2013.02.017.
Sutherland, R., Hodge, A., Bruck, S., Costley, D., & Klieve, H. (2017). Parent-reported differences between school-aged girls and boys on the autism spectrum. Autism, 21, 785–794. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361316668653.
Teti, M., Cheak-Zamora, N., Lolli, B., & Maurer-Batjer, A. (2016). Reframing autism: Young adults with autism share their strengths through photo-stories. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 31, 619–629. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pedn.2016.07.002.
Trembath, D., Germano, C., Johanson, G., & Dissanayake, C. (2012). The experience of anxiety in young adults with autism spectrum disorder. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 27, 213–224. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088357612454916.
Turner-Brown, L. M., Lam, K. S. L., Holtzclaw, T. N., Dichter, G. S., & Bodfish, J. W. (2011). Phenomenology and measurement of circumscribed interests in autism spectrum disorders. Autism, 15(4), 437–456. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361310386507.
Van Wijngaarden-Cremers, P. J. M., Van Eeten, E., Groen, W. B., Van Deurzen, P. A., Oosterling, I. J., & Van Der Gaag, R. J. (2014). Gender and age differences in the core triad of impairments in autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44, 627–635. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-013-1913-9.
Vine Foggo, R. S., & Webster, A. A. (2017). Understanding the social experiences of adolescent females on the autism spectrum. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 35, 74–85. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2016.11.006.
Williams, C. V. E. (2016). Diagnosing/recognising high functioning autism in adult females: Challenging stereotypes. Autism-Open Access, 6, 2–4. https://doi.org/10.4172/2165-7890.100017.
Winter-Messiers, M. A. (2007). From tarantulas to toilet brushes: Understanding the special interest areas of children with asperger syndrome. Remedial and Special Eduation, 28, 140–152. https://doi.org/10.1177/07419325070280030301.
Wood, R. (2019). Autism, intense interests, and support in school: From wasted efforts to shared understandings. Educational Review. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131911.2019.1566213.
We are grateful to all of the families in spark, the spark clinical sites and spark staff. Special thanks to the participants without whom this study would not be possible. We appreciate obtaining access to phenotypic data on SFARI Base. Approved researchers can obtain the SPARK population dataset described in this study ([include here the URL of the population used, obtained from SFARI Base]) by applying at https://base.sfari.org.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Electronic supplementary material
Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.
About this article
Cite this article
Nowell, K.P., Bernardin, C.J., Brown, C. et al. Characterization of Special Interests in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Brief Review and Pilot Study Using the Special Interests Survey. J Autism Dev Disord 51, 2711–2724 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-020-04743-6
- Special interests
- Circumscribed interests