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Abstract

Circumscribed interests are a fascinating and an understudied phenomenon in some individuals with autismspectrum disorders (ASD). Research in this area is likely to contribute to our understanding of ASDs and to advancing developmental knowledge on learning processes used to adapt to the demands of everyday social life. This study reports on a survey of special interests in 96 children and adolescents with higher functioning ASD. The survey included listing of up to three special interests for each child, and the rating of level of interference of a given interest upon children's activities when by themselves and when in contact with family members, peers, and other adults. This information was collected for both preschool and elementary school years. Special interests were classified into eight categories in terms of their nature (rather than topic), which included the ways through which the interest was manifest and pursued. Results indicated that circumscribed interests (a) are the norm rather than the exception in this population (75 and 88 of the sample for the younger and the older age periods, respectively), (b) most frequently involve verbal learning and memorization of facts (65 and 81 for the younger and the older age periods, respectively), (c) often involve an element of interest in letters and numbers in the preschool years (35 of the sample), (d) greatly interfere with activities pursued by oneself or with others, and (e) level of interference is predictive of lower social and communicative adaptive behavior later in life. Given the ubiquity of circumscribed interests in this population, their verbal nature, and the passion that children with ASD invest in these pursuits, we suggest the need for studies that will trace the longitudinal course of learning profiles from early childhood and possible interventions that may address these areas.
Circumscribed Interests in Higher
Functioning Individuals With
Autism Spectrum Disorders:
An Exploratory Study
Ami Klin, Judith H. Danovitch, Amanda B. Merz, and Fred R. Volkmar
Yale Child Study Center
Circumscribed interests are a fascinating and an under-
studied phenomenon in some individuals with autism spec-
trum disorders (ASD). Research in this area is likely to
contribute to our understanding of ASDs and to advanc-
ing developmental knowledge on learning processes used
to adapt to the demands of everyday social life. This study
reports on a survey of special interests in 96 children and
adolescents with higher functioning ASD. The survey in-
cluded listing of up to three special interests for each child,
and the rating of level of interference of a given interest
upon children’s activities when by themselves and when
in contact with family members, peers, and other adults.
This information was collected for both preschool and
elementary school years. Special interests were classified
into eight categories in terms of their nature (rather than
topic), which included the ways through which the interest
was manifest and pursued. Results indicated that circum-
scribed interests (a) are the norm rather than the excep-
tion in this population (75% and 88% of the sample for
the younger and the older age periods, respectively), (b)
most frequently involve verbal learning and memoriza-
tion of facts (65% and 81% for the younger and the older
age periods, respectively), (c) often involve an element
of interest in letters and numbers in the preschool years
(35% of the sample), (d) greatly interfere with activities
pursued by oneself or with others, and (e) level of inter-
ference is predictive of lower social and communicative
adaptive behavior later in life. Given the ubiquity of cir-
cumscribed interests in this population, their verbal na-
ture, and the passion that children with ASD invest in
these pursuits, we suggest the need for studies that will
trace the longitudinal course of learning profiles from
early childhood and possible interventions that may ad-
dress these areas.
DESCRIPTORS: Asperger syndrome, autism, restricted
interests , circumscribed interests
The autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a family of
neurodevelopmental conditions marked by early-onset
social and communication disabilities, challenges with
imagination, and a range of restrictive behaviors and in-
terests that range from stereotypic movements to amass-
ing large amounts of information on circumscribed topics
(Volkmar, Lord, Bailey, Schultz, & Klin, 2004). Although
most of the psychological and experimental literature
on the ASDs focuses on deficits in a wide range of abil-
ities, some recent theoretical models pose that the style
of learning of these individuals may also result in rela-
tive strengths within their own profile, or even in ab-
solute strengths relative to typical peers. For example,
the Bweak central coherence[ hypothesis (Happ2,2005)
suggests that these individuals focus on isolated frag-
ments of knowledge rather than on integrated meanings,
thus accounting for their deficits in holistic or configural
processing and in conceptual knowledge. By the same
token, however, these individuals would be at some ad-
vantage in aspects of knowledge that require featural,
fragmented, or rote learning. Thus, they may be more
accurate or faster than their typical peers at identify-
ing simple figures embedded in more complex designs
(Jolliffe & Baron-Cohen, 1997; Shah & Frith, 1993)
and maybe have some advantage at learning discrete
facts and rote information about a given topic (Klin &
Volkmar, 1997). This would result from a learning style
that is unimpeded by the normative tendency to seek
configural patterns, conceptual meanings, or gist in what
they learn. Whereas in typical development the trees
obscure the leaves, in individuals with ASD the leaves
take center stage.
This potential learning advantage in individuals with
ASD has been primarily described in instances of pro-
digious skills, such as those exhibited by Bautistic sa-
vants[ (Hermelin, 2001). These are individuals who
despite a degree of intellectual disabilities are capable
of showing surprising accomplishments in one or more
circumscribed areas such as calendar calculation, math-
ematics, art, or memorization of facts and information.
Such feats are particularly noteworthy because they oc-
cur as islets of special ability that can be extreme. And
Address all correspondence and reprint requests to Ami
Klin, PhD, Yale Child Study Center, 230 South Frontage Road,
New Haven, CT 06520. E-mail: ami.klin@yale.edu
Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities
2007, Vol. 32, No. 2, 89–100
copyright 2007 by
TASH
89
yet, the clinical literature on the ASDs is replete with
descriptions of special interests that may not be prodi-
gious in their own right but which otherwise dominate
the mental lives of these individuals (Attwood, 2003).
For them, the all-absorbing nature of these pursuits may
disrupt learning in areas important for real-life adapta-
tion and can significantly interfere with reciprocal social
interaction (Klin & Volkmar, 1997). In fact, they are one
of the more specific behaviors listed in the DSM-IV
cluster of Brestricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns
of behavior, interests, and activities[ (American Psy-
chiatric Association, 2000). Within this cluster, there is
some suggestion that criterion AYBencompassing pre-
occupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted
patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity
or in focus,[ might be more commonly met in higher
functioning individuals with ASD (with IQ in the nor-
mative range or above) than criterion BYritualistic be-
havior, criterion CYstereotypies or motor mannerisms,
or criterion DYpreoccupation with parts of objects (Klin,
Pauls, Schultz, & Volkmar, 2005; Klin, McPartland, &
Volkmar, 2005; Szatmari, 1991; Wing, 1981), but there
are no prevalence data on this matter. And because
criterion A is phrased in a rather general manner, a
Bpattern of interest[ could range from an intense focus
on patterns of sensory stimuli (e.g., color or texture of a
toy) to an all-absorbing interest in a topic such as botanic
nomenclature. Given that one of the greatest challenges
in autism research, at both the phenotypic and the ge-
notypic levels, is the vast variability of syndrome ex-
pression (Volkmar et al., 2004), and that the residual
(and thus poorly defined) subtype of the ASDs, per-
vasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified
(PDD-NOS), is the most prevalent of these conditions
(Fombonne, 2003), more detailed information about the
range of manifestations of a specific symptom cluster
might contribute to the development of more refined
subtyping among the PDDs. For example, some have
suggested that individuals with prototypical forms of
Asperger syndrome are more likely to collect facts and
information about specific topics, whereas individuals
with prototypical forms of autism are more likely to
show special skills and become absorbed in activities
such as drawing, memorization of a wide range of seem-
ingly unconnected bits of information, calendar calcula-
tion, or other rote numerical procedures (Klin, Pauls,
et al., 2005; Klin, McPartland, et al., 2005). However, the
concepts of Asperger syndrome and of circumscribed
interests have lacked consensual and operationalized
definitions, thus impeding elucidation of these issues.
The present study aims at exploring the concept of
circumscribed interests as manifest in higher functioning
individuals with ASD. There are at least two pressing
reasons for studies of this nature. First, most experi-
mental research in autism has focused on attempts to
identify factors accounting for the breakdown of social-
ization processes. In many ways, studies of how learning
processes build up might be equally important in under-
standing the pathogenesis and natural course of the
ASDs. Second, it is a matter of practical clinical and
nosologic need that central features of the ASDs are
explicated and empirically characterized so as to refine
the operationalization of symptoms, which may in turn
yield more homogeneous samples.
Historical Background
The four children described by Asperger (1944/1991)
in his original text exhibited areas of remarkably intense
interest that focused on specific topics about which they
learned a great deal of information. Kanner’s (1943)
contemporaneous description of autism included simi-
lar examples, although the range of activities was wider,
very likely because, in some contrast to Asperger’s sam-
ple, these were children both with and without vary-
ing degrees of intellectual and language impairment.
Whereas Asperger’s descriptions were more likely to
involve amassing facts and information about a specific
topic, Kanner’s descriptions were more likely to involve
astounding memory for events, names, texts, or complex
visual patterns and sequences.
Robinson and Vitale (1954) provided a rich descrip-
tion of the circumscribed interests of three children,
which were much more reminiscent of Asperger’s de-
scriptions than Kanner’s (1943). One child focused on
chemistry, names of plants and shrubbery, nuclear fis-
sion, and corporate finance, speaking in a longwinded
fashion about these topics in a manner that frequently
alienated his peers. Another child was extremely knowl-
edgeable of the local transportation system. The third
one was interested in astronomy, lectured on that fre-
quently to his classmates, and started all conversations
with a leading question about the origins of the names
of stars and planets. Commenting on this paper, Kanner
(1954) made a direct connection to his own description
of autism, adding, however, that these children did not
show the preservation of sameness and were not as so-
cially withdrawn as the original group he had described.
Kanner also described how these three children used
their circumscribed interests to make connections with
other people, how the all-absorbing nature of these in-
terests interfered with learning about other areas of
thought, and how they interfered with these children’s
ability to engage in reciprocal conversations, which in
turn made it very difficult for them to make friends.
Despite these seminal and rich descriptions of cir-
cumscribed interests and their impact on social adapta-
tion of children with autism and Asperger syndrome,
this phenomenon was not empirically studied for the
next 45 years.
Recent Research on Circumscribed Interests
Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright (1999) reported on a
survey completed by parents of the content of Bobses-
sions[ or fascinations in a sample of 92 children with
ASDs with a mean age of 11.2 years and a maleYfemale
90
Klin et al.
ratio of 4.75:1. Participant IQs were not reported. Their
comparison group consisted of 33 children with Tourette
syndrome, 7 of whom had comorbid ADHD and 9 had
comorbid obsessiveYcompulsive disorder (OCD). The
focus of this study was on the content of such obsessions.
Thus, the subjects of obsessions were coded in terms
of 15 categories: physics, mathematics, biology, psychol-
ogy, language, taxonomy, attachments to specific ob-
jects, crafts, routines, memorization of facts, food-related
activities, people, sports or games, television or video,
and sensory phenomena. Individuals with ASD showed
more obsessions in the realm of physics (e.g., machines,
vehicles, computers, astronomy) and less in the realm
of psychology (e.g., imagination, relationships, gossip,
desires, beliefs) than the group with Tourette syndrome,
thus corroborating the authors’ main hypothesis that
the groups would differ in terms of a more pronounced
fascination with Bfolk physics[ relative to Bfolk psy-
chology[ in individuals with ASD. The group with ASD,
however, showed Bobsessions[ at varying degrees, in
most of the categories coded by the investigators. Al-
though a fascination with physics was shown by 84% of
their sample, they also had fascination with topics re-
lated to biology (38%) (e.g., plants, animals, nature),
math (35%), taxonomy (73%) (e.g., sorting, categoriz-
ing, lists), TV/video (64%), among others. However, it
was surprising that individuals with Tourette syndrome
also showed Bobsessions[ (although to a lesser degree)
in physics, in taxonomy, and had in fact significantly
greater fascination with sensory phenomena (91%) re-
lative to individuals with ASD (63%). The emphasis of
this study was on the subject matter of the fascination
exhibited by these individuals, and there was no attempt
to more systematically address the possibility that a
child’s topic of interest could be scored in several of
the categories (e.g., physics, memorization of facts re-
lated to the physics topic, or making drawings related to
the same topic).
A more comprehensive study of circumscribed inter-
ests was conducted by South, Ozonoff, and McMahon
(2005) within the context of a broader investigation of
repetitive behaviors in 40 children and adolescents with
Asperger syndrome and higher functioning autism.
Only the work on circumscribed interests is described
here given the focus of the present study. Individuals
in both clinical samples showed a wide range of special
interests that were similar to each other (thus, the results
are combined here). No attempt was made to catego-
rize the interests in terms of the conceptual categoriza-
tion used by Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright (1999).
The more common topics of interest were Japanese
animation (22%), space/physics (20.5%), video games
and Internet (17.5%), gadgets (16%), power heroes
(15%), and dinosaurs (13.5%), although there was a
considerable number of children interested in historical
events, reading of technical manuals, reptiles and ro-
dents, among several others. Both groups pursued these
interests by reading about the topic, collecting related
objects, watching TV/videos and playing video games,
and rote memorization of facts.
Although there is a body of research looking at the
various manifestations of repetitive behaviors in the
ASDs (e.g., Szatmari et al., 2006), there remains a strong
need for additional investigations specifically into cir-
cumscribed interests with greater specificity than has
been carried out. The two available studies illustrate
the various complexities in such investigations. In the
context of the present study, an attempt was made to
utilize the coding system used by Baron-Cohen and
Wheelwright (1999) but acceptable interrater reliability
could not be achieved. This is likely a result of the fact
that in that study, a more or less a priori classification of
Bobsessions[ was established in the format of the sur-
vey. In contrast, both in the South et al. (2005) and in
the present study, an open-ended format was used, thus
necessitating a system of classification to codify the an-
swers collected. And in many cases, the same circum-
scribed interest can be scored in multiple categories.
For example, an interest in a topic in physics will likely
involve memorization of facts associated with that topic,
interest in classification systems related to that topic,
pursuit of video games associated with it, drawings or
models made of exemplars, hoarding of items, among
other possibilities. Also, the true nature of a circum-
scribed interest is often only revealed once more de-
tailed information on the child’s activities related to that
topic is provided. For example, a child’s interest in com-
puters may be really an interest in memorizing computer
serial numbers; a child’s interest in a historical figure
may be really an interest in memorizing a very large
body of facts and trivia about that person with no con-
ceptual understanding of that person’s significance in
history. The anecdotes available in the clinical literature
since Asperger’s (1944/1991) and Kanner’s (1943) de-
scriptions all point to what seems to be an unlimited
number of exemplars of more or less unusual topics of
fascination which, however, are pursued in rote but in-
tense fashion without ever reaching conceptual insights
that can be shared with others as hobbies or vocational
avenues (Attwood, 2003; Klin & Volkmar, 2000) unless
a concerted effort is made by interventionists trying to
capitalize on those powerful intrinsic interests. And ac-
tivities associated with that interest may be as varied
as there are opportunities available to a given child. In
fact, many activities of a child can be molded by the
circumscribed interest, from reading to hoarding, and
to shaping conversations with others to focus on that
interest.
Within the context of these various challenges, this
exploratory study was intended to categorize and char-
acterize circumscribed interests in higher functioning
individuals with ASD based on the nature of the interest
rather than the specific content of the topic of interest.
This strategy was adopted as a way of exploring the
91
Circumscribed Interests in Autism Spectrum Disorders
structure and process of knowledge displayed by these
children in the pursuit of their various choices of spe-
cial interests. An attempt was made to measure the ex-
tent to which these interests interfere with learning of
other things when the child is by him or herself or is
involved in activities with family members, peers, and
other adults. We also assessed the extent to which this
interference predicted adaptive functioning in the com-
munication and social domains later in life. It is well
known that these interests can hamper reciprocal com-
munication because of these children’s tendency to en-
gage others in one-sided conversations focused on an
interest that is not shared by their conversational part-
ner. Similarly, these interests can be stigmatizing. For
example, a child whose interest and speech revolve
around unusual topics such as washers and dryers or
deep-fat fryers will have difficulty finding peers who are
interested in these topics.
An open-ended survey completed by parents was
adopted for this initial study with a view not to constrain
information on the range and the descriptions of special
interests. As noted, the nature of a given interest can
be mistakenly inferred without sufficient detail about
the ways in which the topic is pursued and learned.
The limited goal of the study was to establish some basic
facts about the nature of circumscribed interests with a
view to generate hypotheses regarding knowledge struc-
ture and the process of learning.
Methods
Participants
Ninety-six individuals (five females) with normative
IQ ASDs were recruited from the Autism Program at
the Yale Child Study Center who also participated in a
larger investigation on the neurobiology and genetics of
these conditions. The parents’ consent and the subjects’
assent were attained in accordance to a protocol ap-
proved by the Yale University School of Medicine In-
stitutional Review Board. The mean age for this group
was 14.3 years (SD = 5.9). Their mean full scale IQ
as measured with an age-appropriate Wechsler scale
(Wechsler, 1991, 1997) was 97.7 (22.1), with verbal IQ
and performance IQ of 102.4 (22.3) and 92.8 (22.2),
respectively. Measures of adaptive functioning using the
Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales, Expanded Edition
(Sparrow, Balla, & Cicchetti, 1984) were available on all
subjects. Scores on this instrument corroborate the level
of severity of adaptive functioning deficits in this sam-
ple, particularly in the domain of social adaptation. For
this group of children and adolescents with ASD, the
mean age-equivalent score in the communication, daily
living, and socialization domains were 9.36 (2.95), 7.73
(3.47), and 4.97 (2.19) years, respectively.
Diagnostic characterization included the Autism Diag-
nostic InterviewYRevised (ADI-R; Rutter, LeCouteur,
& Lord, 2003) and the Autism Diagnostic Observation
ScheduleYGeneric (ADOS-G; Lord et al., 1999). All sub-
jects met criteria on the ADI-R and met criteria for
autism or an ASD on the ADOS-G. On the ADOS-G, the
mean score in the communication cluster was 4.16 (1.61)
with a range of 2Y7, and the mean score in the social
cluster was 9.49 (2.76) with a range of 4Y14. Two ex-
perienced clinicians confirmed the diagnosis of an ASD
independently. Given the complications involved in sub-
typing of the higher functioning ASDs (Klin, Pauls, et al.,
2005; Klin, McPartland, et al., 2005), no attempt was
made to investigate differences in the nature of circum-
scribed interests by ASD subtype. However, using the
diagnostic system proposed in the study of Klin, Pauls,
et al. (2005) on the nosology of Asperger syndrome, the
subtyping breakdown resulted in 41 individuals with au-
tism, 36 individuals with Asperger syndrome, and 19 in-
dividuals with PDD-NOS.
Survey of Circumscribed Interests
The Yale Survey of Special Interests (YSSI; Klin &
Volkmar, 1996) is an open-ended questionnaire eliciting
information about areas of particular interest to children
with ASD and the extent to which pursuit of these in-
terests dominate the child’s learning activities and com-
munication with others. An interview modification of
this survey was used in the report by South et al. (2005).
In the present study, the original survey was completed
by parents as a written questionnaire rather than as
an interview. The survey is divided into four identical
sections based on age ranges: preschool (ages 2Y6), ele-
mentary school (ages 7Y12), adolescence (ages 13Y18),
and adulthood (age 19 and up). Given the age distribu-
tion of the sample included in this study, only data on
the preschool and elementary school ages were analyzed
as there were not sufficient numbers in the older cate-
gories. Parents were instructed to complete the sections
corresponding to their child’s current age and the sec-
tions for all earlier ages. For each section, parents were
first asked whether their child exhibited an unusually
intense interest at the corresponding age and if the re-
sponse was Byes,[ they were instructed to list up to three
of the child’s topics of interest and provide Bexamples of
the things the child knew or did involving this topic[ (see
Appendix B). Parents then completed ratings of how
much of the child’s free time was spent on the topic of
interest when by him or herself and how much of the
child’s interaction with their family, peers, and other
adults was related to the topic of interest. The ratings of
interference utilized a 3-point scale that consisted of
Bsometimes[ (less than 25% of the time), Bquite a bit[
(between 25% and 75% of the time), and Balmost al-
ways[ (more than 75% of the time).
Coding Special Interests
Topics of interest were coded into eight descriptive
categories. Rather than focusing on the object or topic
of interest, the categories were intended to capture the
92
Klin et al.
nature of the child’s knowledge and interest-related be-
haviors as well. The categories are briefly described as
follows:
1. Facts/verbal memory and learning: collection of facts
within a system or topic involving verbal memory
(e.g., makes and models of cars, lyrics of Broadway
musicals, facts about the Jonestown Flood, electri-
cal appliances);
2. Facts and activities/visual memory and learning: col-
lection of facts or engagement in activities within
a system or topic involving visual memory (e.g.,
drawing horses, designing highways out of blocks,
constructing dragons out of legos);
3. Sensory behaviors: activities related to seeking sen-
sory stimulation, ordering objects, or Bsameness[
(e.g., smashing light bulbs on the floor, lining up
objects, sensing textures);
4. Math: memorization of numerical facts, math pro-
cedures, or fascination with abstract shapes (e.g.,
geometric forms, prime numbers, calculating square
roots);
5. Classifying/ordering information: learning of classi-
fication systems or attempts at classifying or other-
wise ordering information according to one or
different factors (e.g., categorizing names from a
school yearbook, classifying insects and reptiles ac-
cording to traits, alphabetizing);
6. Dates and time: dates of birth, calendars, time con-
cepts (e.g., memorizing birthdays and holidays,
studying clocks or time keeping devices);
7. Hoarding: collection of objects (e.g., buying board
games, collecting newspapers, collecting Frisbees
or vinyl records);
8. Letters and numbers: fascination with letters, num-
bers, reading decoding. This category was used
only for the preschool section because this phe-
nomenon is more difficult to assess once reading
emerges in these children and in typical children
in elementary school years (e.g., counting forward
and backward, spelling words, using toys to form
letters and numbers).
These descriptive categories were deliberately designed
to exclude instances of savant skills that do not relate
to a topic of interest (e.g., general drawing or musical
ability). Behaviors that are common in typical children
(e.g., playing video games) for which the parent pro-
vided no additional information that could disambiguate
their true nature were also excluded. This likely resulted
in exclusion of some behaviors that might quality as a
circumscribed interest in a more in-depth investigation.
Because (a) there were over 250 specific topics of in-
terest recorded for the 96 individuals over the various
developmental periods (for a sample, see Appendix A),
(b) these interests could thematically overlap or could
be codified in multiple different a priori categorization
attempts, and (c) the way in which a given special inter-
est evolved with time, becoming more complex and thus
defying more subject-specific codification, an effort
was made to capture the nature of the circumscribed
interests in terms of knowledge structure and process of
pursuing those interests. The system adopted here still
allows for overlap in the way that a given interest is
manifested, but each category represents a sufficiently
distinct code that places emphasis on underlying learn-
ing processes. This was required to attain acceptable
levels of interrater reliability.
Reliability
Two trained individuals coded the topics of interest
listed by parents on the YSSI. For children who had
more than one topic of interest at a given age, the coders
considered all of the topics listed. Across the four age
groups, kappa ranged from .81 to 1 and percent agree-
ment ranged from .93 to 1. Overall, kappa equaled .85,
with 94.66% agreement between the coders.
Results
Descriptive Data and Developmental Trend
To assess the frequency of different types of behaviors
and activities related to each child’s special interests,
we compared the number of individual children whose
interests were classified into each category for each age
group. As noted, only data referring to the preschool
and elementary school years were included in this study.
We found that interests involving verbal memory and
learning were by far the most prevalent in the two age
groups, followed by interests involving letters and num-
bers (among preschool age children) and interests in-
volving visual memory and learning (see Table 1). The
frequencies of all of the other categories tended to
be low, particularly among the elementary school age
children. These results suggest that verbal memory and
learning, such as memorization and recollection of facts,
is the predominant behavior associated with special
interests in children with ASD.
Moreover, because the coding methods allowed for an
individual child’s interests to be concurrently classified
into several categories, we were able to examine the
amount of overlap among categories of interests. An ex-
amination of the overlap between the categories revealed
that among both preschool and elementary school chil-
dren, special interests are often characterized by multiple
types of behaviors associated with the topic of interest
(see Figure 1). With the exception of verbal memory
and learning, which was often the only characteristic ob-
served in individual children, children’s behaviors rarely
occurred in isolation. This pattern suggests that children
may exhibit multiple types of behaviors associated with
special interests rather than focusing on just one aspect of
their topics of interest.
Examining the Venn diagrams in Figure 1, it is possi-
ble to see, for example, that for the preschool years,
93
Circumscribed Interests in Autism Spectrum Disorders
37 individuals exhibited verbal memorization of facts on
a given topic of interest without pursuing their interests
in a different way; 21 others pursued their given inter-
ests via both verbal and visual learning and activities;
8 individuals combined verbal learning with hoarding of
exemplars of that interest; and it is of interest that in 6
of the 10 cases exhibiting sensory-seeking behaviors, 6
of them sought sensory stimulation in ways that were
related to special interests pursued through verbal or
visual learning and memorization. Thus, special inter-
ests involving verbal memory and learning were about
equally likely to occur in isolation or with other types of
Figure 1. (A) Venn diagram showing distribution of cases and overlap of the four most frequent categories at Preschool Age (diagram
not to scale). (B) Venn diagram showing distribution of cases and overlap of the four most frequent categories at Elementary School
Age (diagram not to scale).
Table 1
Percent Frequency of Each Category of Interest for Preschool and Elementary School Ages
Category of Interest
Preschool age
Elementary age
Percentage of Sample (N = 96)
Facts/verbal memory and learning 65.6 81.3
Facts and activities/visual memory and learning 22.9 27.1
Sensory behaviors 12.5 2.1
Math 2.1 5.2
Classifying/ordering information 0 1.0
Dates and time 3.1 1.0
Hoarding 10.4 6.3
Letters and numbers 35.4 n/a
94 Klin et al.
behaviors, but other categories of special interest were
very unlikely to happen without some form of verbal
learning and memorization, at least for the top four cate-
gories. The predominance of verbal learning and mem-
orization as the avenue of expression of special interests
was also observed for the elementary school years.
Developmental trends were analyzed by means of the
chi-square statistic comparing preschool with elementa-
ry school years. Given the frequencies obtained for the
various categories of interest, comparisons were made
for only the four top categories of interest. A fifth com-
parison involved number of overall cases exhibiting spe-
cial interests. At the p G .05 level, going from preschool
to elementary school years, there was a significant in-
crease in number of individuals exhibiting circumscribed
interests, as well as in the categories facts/verbal mem-
ory and learning and hoarding, #
2
= 5.90, p G .025, #
2
=
5.44, p G .025, #
2
= 4.18, p G .05, respectively, and a
significant decrease in Sensory Behaviors, #
2
= 5.68,
p G .025. There was no fluctuation in the facts and the
activities/visual memory and learning category.
Relationship Between Circumscribed Interests and
Interference With Learning and With Interaction
With Others and Developmental Trends
Among the children with identified circumscribed in-
terests, an attempt to measure interference with activ-
ities was made by comparing levels of interference in
four different situations: (a) self-directed learning and
activities and interaction with or activities involving (b)
family members, (c) peers, and (d) other adults. As
noted, the level of interference was crudely measured in
a 4-point scale as some (less than 25% of time or oc-
currences; score 1), substantial (between 25% and 75%
of time or occurrences, score 2), or almost all the time
(over 75% of time or occurrences, score 3). In both
preschool age years and in elementary school years, the
level of interference was high (with group means above
score 2) and stable for the two age periods across the
four situations, indicating that self-guided activities and
activities involving others were substantially shaped by
the child’s circumscribed interest. Given the number of
paired comparisons, significance level was placed at p G
.01. In preschool years, there was significantly more in-
terference in self-guided activities (M = 2.40, SD = 0.6)
relative to the other settings and comparable levels of
interference in activities involving family members (M =
2.14, SD = 0.6), peers (M = 2.01, SD = 0.7), and other
adults (M = 2.08, SD = 0.7). Similar results were ob-
tained for elementary school years, with significantly
more interference in self-guided activities (M = 2.41,
SD = 0.5) relative to the other settings, and comparable
levels of interference in activities involving family mem-
bers (M = 2.17, SD = 0.6), peers (M = 2.05, SD = 0.8),
and other adults (M = 2.06, SD = 0.7). As noted, none
of the paired comparison across the two age groups was
significant, suggesting that the high level of interference
across all situations remained stable during preschool
and elementary school years.
Relationship Between Interference
and Adaptive Behavior
Total interference scores were calculated by assigning
a numerical value of 0 (no interference)to3(high inter-
ference) for each of the interference questions on the
YSSI. Summing the scores for the four interference
situations (activities by self, with family members, with
peers, and with other adults) yielded a total interference
score between 0 and 12. We were interested in whether
there would be a relationship between the frequency of
interference and the adaptive behaviors measured on
the Vineland. Because the measurement of special in-
terests referred to preschool and elementary school age
and the Vineland measure was obtained at a much later
stage, the relationship studied concerned the extent to
which special interests in the preschool and the elemen-
tary school years predicted adaptive behavior in later
childhood and adolescence. For the preschool years,
there was a significant correlation between preschool
total interference scores and age equivalents on the
Socialization domain of the Vineland, r(75) = j.230, p =
.049. The relationship with the communication domain
of the Vineland was in the expected direction but did not
reach significance (p = .090). Thus, children whose spe-
cial interests were judged to interfere with their learn-
ing and interactions with others more frequently during
preschool years exhibited lower scores on social adap-
tation, and a trend in the same direction was obtained on
communicative adaptation. For the elementary school
years, there was a significant correlation between total
interference scores and age equivalents on the Vineland
communication domain, r(83) = j.244, p = .027, and the
relationship to age equivalents on the Vineland Social-
ization domain approached significance, r(83) = j.210,
p = .058. Thus, children whose special interests inter-
fered with their learning and social interactions more
frequently during the elementary school years displayed
lower scores on communicative and maybe social adap-
tation as well.
Discussion
This exploratory study of circumscribed interests in
higher functioning individuals with ASD was aimed at
generating hypotheses about the nature of these phe-
nomena, the degree of interference with self-guided and
other-directed activities and experiences, the possible
developmental trends, and the extent to which degree
of interference might predict social and communicative
adaptation in later childhood and adolescence. Despite
fascinating accounts of these phenomena in the early,
descriptive literature on autism and Asperger syndrome,
several decades went by with no further systematic
study of circumscribed interests. And to date, there have
been only two studies more specifically focused on these
95
Circumscribed Interests in Autism Spectrum Disorders
symptoms despite their centrality in clinical descriptions,
if not in the definition itself, of the ASDs.
Using an exploratory system to code circumscribed
interests in terms of their nature and the learning pro-
cesses used to pursue them, we focused on two devel-
opmental periodsYpreschool and elementary school
yearsYand adopted a crude measure of deleterious inter-
ference of these interests in activities that are self-guided
or which involve interaction with family, peers, or other
adults.
Frequency of Circumscribed Interests
The more obvious by-product of this study was the
documentation of frequency of circumscribed interests
in this population. Indeed, of the 96 individuals in this
sample, 72 of them displayed such interests during pre-
school years and 85 of them did so in elementary school
years. Thus, it would appear that circumscribed inter-
ests are the norm, not the exception. By far, the most
frequent form of special interest involved amassing facts
and information through verbal learning and memory.
Over two thirds of children in preschool years and over
three fourths of children in elementary school years
displayed such interests. About one fourth of the sam-
ple displayed interests pursued through visually based
learning, memory, and activities in both age periods.
Hoarding and sensory-seeking behaviors were much less
frequent. Thus, verbal learning and memorization is the
predominant way through which circumscribed interests
are expressed. In fact, exemplars of other categories
of interest were likely to involve some verbal learning
and memorization aspect. This was so even in regards
to some sensory-seeking behaviors, which focused on
objects that were also a subject of a verbal interest.
Alongside this finding is the notion that in preschool
years, a third of the sample displayed fascination with
letters and numbers and activities involving them. Thus,
language, letters, and numbers, including reading, ap-
pear to be the most prevalent means to learn about,
explore, and memorize aspects of the world that are
important to these children. This is rather striking con-
sidering that there were over 250 exemplars of specific
topics listed by parents.
In generating hypotheses as to why circumscribed in-
terests are so prevalent in this population, and why the
main avenue for expression of these interests is through
verbal learning and memory, current theoretical ap-
proaches offer only limited explanation. The Bweak cen-
tral coherence[ approach (Happ2, 2005) would explain
the rote and decontextualized nature of these interests,
as well as the likely improved learning of this kind of
knowledge by individuals with ASD relative to other
individuals. However, it would not necessarily account
for the verbal nature of the interests or for the passion
with which these chil dren embrace these interests.
Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright’s (1999) notion that, in
choosing topics of interest, these individuals are more
likely to pick interests associated with physics or with
systems in general rather than those based on people’s
psychology is fully born out in our data, as not only were
exemplars of special interests typically associated with
aspects of the physical world, but even when they were
associated with people, there was little evidence that
this reflected an interest in their thoughts, feelings,
or experiences. Much more likely, an interest in Bpeo-
ple[ would revolve around learning rote facts and trivia
and making this center stage in self-guided and other-
directed experiences.
Interference With Other Experiences
and With Outcome Measures
T he pursuit of circumscribed interests greatly impacts
the activities of these children. In both preschool and ele-
mentary school years, interference was high, suggesting
that 25Y75% of time or occurrenc es within the various set-
tings were affected or molded around the child’s circum-
scribed interest. Granted the crude nature of the measure
used to estimate such a high level of interference, it is
clear that circumscribed interests play an important role
in the way that children spend their time by themselves
and the nature of contact that they have with others .
Although the impact of circumscribed interests have
been alluded to since Asperger’s (1944/1991) and
Kanner’s (1943, 1954) original papers, little systematic
attention has been devoted to understanding the possible
impact of this phenomenon on shaping and determin-
ing children’s means of understanding the world around
them, particularly the social world. Although verbally
learned and memorized facts about people constitute one
aspect of our knowledge of others (e.g., gender, age, date
of birth, address, and such Bfactual[ pieces of informa-
tion), in most situations, and particularly in our daily lives
when we tend to interact with familiar people most of the
time, most social interactions and conversations require
many other forms of learning about others (e.g., Klin,
Jones, Schultz, Volkmar, & Cohen, 2002a; Klin, Jones,
Schultz, & Volkmar, 2003) that cannot be reduced to this
kind of information, such as processing of nonverbal cues,
intentions, and attitudes. In fact, it is likely that such
information should be either presupposed (e.g., when
asked BWhat kind of a person is Elizabeth?[ one adult
not involved in this study replied BAwoman[)oritmight
be irrelevant in a given situation (e.g., the person’s date
of birth, the kind of car owned).
Among the four situations measured, greatest inter-
ference was found in self-guided activities when the
child was alone. Even so, we suggest that the true de-
gree of interference might not be fully known, even to
parents. Although observable behaviors provide them
with a sense of the content of their child’s mental
activities, the child might still be thinking about or be
mentally manipulating the topic of interest without any
outward sign. This would be similar to a case of a pro-
digious child with savant skills in calendar calculation
96
Klin et al.
(Thioux, Stark, Klaiman, & Schultz, 2006), who not only
would ask anyone in the vicinity for their dates of birth
but would whisper to self an assortment of dates of birth
even when sitting alone in a room. It is probably safe to
say that from babyhood on, through the lifespan, most
typically developing individuals invest that amount of
passion and mental Bcurrency[ into their social experi-
ences and their internalized social life and fantasies.
Thus, it would appear important to fully appreciate what
might be the impact of this phenomenon on the very
tools of learning and adaptation of individuals with
ASD. We suggest that the vast investment made by
typically developing individuals in self-referenced social
experiences, thoughts, and emotions is replaced with
verbally learned, memorized, and manipulated topics
of special interest that typically manifest in routinized
behavioral or mental manipulations. Like anybody, chil-
dren need to make a decision as to what they do with
finite time, attention, and learning resources. For indi-
viduals with ASD, impaired social ability implies that
learning through social experiences and the typical en-
joyment associated with the social world are not present
in the way that they are present in typical individuals.
Hence, it is not surprising that they may attempt to
make sense of their surrounding world through learn-
ing about special interests as it may be the means that
comes to them most naturally and is most enjoyable.
Minimally, our results suggest that attempts to under-
stand the nature and course of circumscribed interests
need to take into account the level of investment or
passion of these children relative to their circumscribed
interests, and the possibility that they serve as an adap-
tive means that they avail themselves of to try and navi-
gate the demands of everyday life.
Limitations of This Study
There are obvious limitations in this exploratory study.
First, we did not compare patterns of circumscribed in-
terests to control groups involving other populations
of individuals with disabilities and typical children and
adolescents. Given some evidence that special interests
may also be present in typically developing children (e.g.,
Johnson, Alexander, Spencer, Leibham, & Neitzel, 2004),
it will be important to examine the lines of convergence
and divergence of such findings relative to individuals
with ASD. But in this regard, in choosing a control group
among other developmental or psychiatric disorders, it is
important to clearly operationalize the concept of cir-
cumscribed interests. For example, the psychiatric terms
Bobsessions[ and Bcompulsions[ have been used in de-
scriptions of circumscribed interests in individuals with
ASD, prompting immediate comparisons with individ-
uals with OCD. And yet, the clinical characteristics of
obsessions and compulsions in these two conditions are
very distinct (Baron-Cohen, 1989; Klin & Volkmar, 1997).
Whereas in OCD obsessions are irrational and dreaded
thoughts that result in great emotional discomfort (i.e.,
they are ego-dystonic), Bobsessions[ in individuals with
ASD are beloved activities apparently associated with
great positive valence. Also, whereas in OCD obsessions
are typically fears that take on enormous proportions to
these individuals while being only minor annoyances or
concerns to others (e.g., germs, safety), in individuals with
ASD Bobsessions[ take the form of passionate pursuit
of knowledge or routines that are unusual in form and
content. Thus, despite the apparent face validity of in-
cluding control groups with OCD or genetically related
psychiatric disorders such as Tourette’s syndrome (like in
the Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright’s study, 1999), other
groups might be equally relevant.
A second limitation of this study has to do with the
actual methodology of collecting information about cir-
cumscribed interests, and particularly the measurement
of interference of such interests in these children’s self-
and other-directed activities. The survey used in this
study was conceived as a clinical instrument meant to
collect information about special interests from parents
prior to the child’s evaluation. Parents provided some
of the data retrospectively, particularly for interests at
the preschool age, which may have resulted in less ac-
curate information. Future instruments should investi-
gate the content and nature of interests in greater depth
at the time they are occurring, and measurements of
interference should be more detailed and provide for
much wider numerical distributions.
Clinical Examples of Circumscribed Interests and
Their Impact on Learning and Social Adaptation
In many ways, the anecdotes are more fascinating than
the numerical data yielded in this study of circumscribed
interests. As noted, of the more than 250 exemplars,
content ranged from topics of interest and activities that
are also frequently exhibited by typical children (e.g.,
Muppets, Power Rangers, Dinosaurs, Greek Mythology),
to topics that might be more typical of much older typi-
cal individuals who might specialize in a given branch
of science (e.g., tsunamis, astronomy, insects, King Tut,
virology, stock market), to topics that might be consid-
ered idiosyncratic in most situations at any age (e.g.,
deep-fat fryers, telephone pole insulators, cul-de-sacs,
codes of radio stations). Regardless of how Bacceptable[
a circumscribed interest could be judged to be at face
value, the ways in which they were pursued and the actual
content of what was learned were often very atypical.
Likewise, although behaviors such as learning based on
verbal memory may be common in typical children, chil-
dren with ASD are unusual in that they seem to dissoci-
ate verbal learning from other types of learning. Thus,
whereas typical children integrate the facts they learn
through verbal memory into activities such as play with
other children or into a larger body of conceptual knowl-
edge, children with ASD do not appear to do so.
From a clinical standpoint, these interests appear to
anchor these children’s experiences of the world around
97
Circumscribed Interests in Autism Spectrum Disorders
them quite broadly. For example, a child with a fascina-
tion with trains and whose vocabulary is rich in adjec-
tives and descriptors of trains and locomotives tends to
use the same qualifiers when asked to describe people
(with no intention of using metaphor or analogy). In
a way, whereas typical individuals appear to anthro-
pomorphize the inanimate world around them (e.g.,
Klin, 2000), children with ASD appear to do the reverse,
namely to use the concepts and reasoning processes that
they have for learning about a special interest (typically
about the physical world or some factual aspect of peo-
ple or the social world) to try and make sense of social
phenomena (Attwood, 2003; Klin & Volkmar, 1997).
Some children feel very strongly about their interests
in such a way that these can impact their mood and
motivation in striking ways. For example, a child with
interest in cul-de-sacs was profoundly despondent be-
cause he had just found out that the street that he lived
in, itself a cul-de-sac, was going to be open for traffic
because of a newly built connection with an adjacent
road. It appeared that a core component of his self-
identity (being a cul-de-sac resident) was now being
taken away from him. One individual, who was fasci-
nated with watches, clocks, and Btime-keeping devices,[
mentioned that he would give away his Bmost treasured
possession [a watch] for a girlfriend[ if he could. Al-
though amusing to some, this statement reflected how
badly he wanted to have a meaningful relationship.
Another child who became fearful of snakes at the age
of 9 years learned everything about snakes and would
introduce the topic of snakes in conversation with peers
and others. Given that anxiety is a frequent comorbid
impairment, particularly among the higher functioning
individuals with ASDs (Kim, Szatmari, Bryson, Streiner,
& Wilson, 2000), the degree to which a relationship
exists between the presence and the intensity of circum-
scribed interests and symptoms of anxiety is a question
worthy of systematic exploration. Thus, circumscribed
interests appear to play a multifaceted role in the lives
of these children. They seem to help shape their under-
standing of an otherwise confusing and perplexing social
world and to allay anxieties resulting from these chal-
lenging situations (see Klin, McPartland, et al., 2005). It
is not surprising therefore that they become so intellec-
tually and emotionally invested in such interests.
Clinical and Research Implications
In addition to the needs for detailed longitudinal de-
signs, better instrumentation, and better measurement,
there is a need for practical knowledge on how to
harness this tremendous learning potential to advance
social and communicative competence and adaptive
behavior in individuals with ASD. A clinical literature
is emerging that suggests the possibility of making use
of these talents (e.g., Attwood, 2003; Klin & Volkmar,
2000) in a way that both encourages socialization and
results in the child with autism being a valued member
of the peer group (Baker, Koegel, & Koegel, 1998).
Asperger’s (1944/1991) initial optimism that circum-
scribed interests would naturally transfigure into voca-
tional opportunities (Asperger, 1979) may be possible.
The key is how to accomplish it. For example, a child
involved in this study had his own pseudovocabulary for
his imaginary electronics contraptions and even built
radios (of cardboard pieces). Several years later, he had
acquired real knowledge about computers and became
knowledgeable of computer programming required for
gaming and other applications. With the advent of a
much broader definition of autism and its wider genetic
boundaries (i.e., the autism broader phenotype; Bailey
et al., 1995), there is increased awareness of individuals
whose success in life (e.g., in information technology or
academics) resulted from highly circumscribed, but real
knowledge and passionate pursuit of a given topic or
area of study. Our hope would be that the same talents
subserving nonadaptive pursuits such as encyclopedic
knowledge of sports statistics, political geography, or
botanic nomenclature might be channeled to learning
that is more readily translatable into skills promoting
independent living, remunerable pursuits, and meaning-
ful employment and relationships.
APPENDIX A
A sample of the over 250 exemplars of circumscribed
interests exhibited by the individuals with higher func-
tioning autism spectrum disorders
Aliens
American revolution
Anime
Animorphs
Astronomy
Bus schedules
Canals
Catastrophic weather
Chemistry
Chinese and Russian
Dynasties
Clocks
Cows
Deep-fat fryers
Digimon
Dinosaurs
Dragons
Eagles
Electronics
Encyclopedias
Famous people
Fighter aircraft
Fish
Food labels
Frisbees
Fruits and vegetables
Furnaces
Furniture
Game shows
Geography
Greek alphabet
Greek Mythology
Guinness Book of World
Records
Hotels
Hyenas
Insects
Japanese science fiction
King Tut
Lawnmowers
Light bulbs
Logos
Map drawing
Military hardware
Name of records
Numbers and locations
of pay phones
Power lines
Recycling
Redrawing borders of
counties in states
Shakespearean plays
98
Klin et al.
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APPENDIX B: Sample Page from Yale
Special Interests Survey
Did your child have an unusually intense interest at this
age in one or two topics or activities, more so than other
preschool-age children? For example, an intense interest
in unusual topics such as traffic lights or telephone pole
insulators; or an amazing knowledge of age appropriate
topics such as dinosaurs or volcanoes that is clearly much
more than other children of the same age. Topics may
change over time, but the child is probably involved with
only one or two at the same time. YES NO
If YES, please complete the following: 1) List the most
striking topics that preoccupied your child at this age (in
order of their occurrence). 2) Give brief but specific exam-
ples of the types of things your child knew or did that
seemed very unusual to those who knew him/her well. 3)
Answer the other questions about the amount of time the
child spent related to the topic at the preschool age
Topic A: _______
Examples of the things the preschooler knew or did
involving this topic:
Topic B: _______
Examples of the things the preschooler knew or did
involving this topic:
Topic C: _______
Examples of the things the preschooler knew or did
involving this topic:
When left by himself/herself (free time), how much time
did he/she spend on the topic of special interest? (For
example: reading, memorizing, drawing or talking con-
nected to the topic)
g Sometimes (less than 25% of the time)
g Quite a bit (between 25%Y75% of time)
g Almost always (more than 75% of time)
How much of your preschool child’s interaction and con-
versation with his/her own family was related to the
topic of special interest? (Followed by same 3 response
choices shown above)
How much of your preschool child’s interaction and con-
versation with peers/friends was related to the topic of
special interest? (Followed by same 3 response choices
shown above)
How much of your preschool child’s interaction and con-
versation with other adults (such as when meeting new
people or with parents’ acquaintance) was related to the
topic of special interest? (F ollowed by same 3 response
choices shown above)
APPENDIX A (continued )
Sharks
Skyscrapers
Smoke detectors
Space
Spiders
Sports schedules
Sports statistics
Star Trek
Star W a rs
Stock market
Storm drains
Superman
Telephone pole insulators
T hree Stooges
Titanic
Tools
Traffic signs
Trai n s
Tran sformers
Travel AAA books
Tsunamis
TV and radio stations
Ukuleles
US congress
US Presidents
Virology
Volcanoes
V iny l records
Weather and meteorology
Whales
WW-II bombers
Yachts and boats
Zip codes
99
Circumscribed Interests in Autism Spectrum Disorders
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Received: April 30, 2007
Final Acceptance: May 15, 2007
Editor in Charge: Lynn Koegel
100 Klin et al.
... confirmed these observations and provided further evidence about the inherent reward value and potential adaptive value of some of the restricted interests (RIs), for instance, as facilitators for successful educational and vocational outcomes due to the acquired expertise (Grove, Hoekstra, Wierda, & Begeer, 2018;Patten Koenig & Hough Williams, 2017;Harrop, Amsbary, Towner-Wright, Reichow, & Boyd, 2019). However, robust evidence suggests that certain interests may negatively affect both autistic individuals and their families (Anthony et al., 2013;Boyd, Conroy, Mancil, Nakao, & Alter, 2007;Klin, Danovitch, Merz, & Volkmar, 2007;Mercier et al., 2000;Pierce & Courchesne, 2001;South, Ozonoff, & McMahon, 2005;Spiker, Lin, Van Dyke, & Wood 2012;Turner-Brown, Lam, Holtzclaw, Dichter, & Bodfish, 2011). Despite the high prevalence, unusual and RIs remain under-researched (Carter, Jung, Reaven, Blakeley-Smith, & Dichter, 2020;Cho et al., 2017;Frazier & Hardan, 2017;Uljarevic et al., 2021). ...
... Studies that have utilized dedicated instruments such as the Yale Survey of Special Interests (South, Klin, & Ozonoff, 1999), the Interests Scale (Bodfish, 2004), and the Special Interests Motivation Scale (Grove, Roth, & Hoekstra, 2016) have confirmed a high prevalence of RI in autism, ranging from 75% to 88%, and demonstrated that majority of autistic individuals show more than one type of RI (Anthony et al., 2013;Grove et al., 2018). Although noted studies differ in terms of RI taxonomy, interests related to specific objects and non-social domains, such as mechanics, were frequent (Klin et al., 2007;South et al., 2007;Turner-Brown et al., 2011). These studies have also emphasized that RI is a complex and heterogeneous domain that encompasses at least (a) interests that while typical in terms of the topic (e.g. ...
... bright or vivid colors and watching spinning objects) and behaviors related to seeking sensory stimulation (e.g. sensing textures) (Anthony et al., 2013;Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 1999;Klin et al., 2007). Although fascination with specific objects, parts of objects, and sensory stimuli are traditionally considered as either part of repetitive sensory-motor behaviors RRB subdomain (Leekam et al., 2011) or aspect of the sensory features RRB subdomain (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), the empirical classification of these behaviors and fascinations is currently unclear. ...
Article
Lay abstract: Despite being highly prevalent among people with autism, restricted and unusual interests remain under-researched and poorly understood. This article confirms that restricted interests are very frequent and varied among children and adolescents with autism. It also further extends current knowledge in this area by characterizing the relationship between the presence, number, and type of restricted interests with chronological age, sex, cognitive functioning, and social and communication symptoms.
... Some researchers have tried to categorise intense interests, but this has proven difficult. Categories derived from one study (Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 1999) could not be reliably applied to behaviours described in other research (Klin et al., 2007). Intense interests can be placed in multiple categories, such as categories related to content (for example, physics), type of information (for example, memorising trivia), or the type of activity that the CYP enjoys (for example, drawing or collecting objects). ...
... Intense interests can be placed in multiple categories, such as categories related to content (for example, physics), type of information (for example, memorising trivia), or the type of activity that the CYP enjoys (for example, drawing or collecting objects). Describing (and understanding) an RRBI thus requires the 'assessor' to collect detailed information about the CYP's behaviour and interests (Klin et al., 2007). ...
... Some researchers (including autistic researchers) have tried to counter the dominant negative view of RRBIs by emphasising their positive aspects (Dawson et al., 2008;Kapp et al., 2019;Mottron, 2017). RRBIs often demonstrate unexpected strengths in individuals, are linked to strong positive emotions, and the pursuit of these interests can be seen as intrinsically motivating for CYP (Klin et al., 2007;Mercier et al., 2000;Winter-Messiers, 2007;Winter-Messiers et al., 2007). Mercier et al. (2000) were concerned about the lack of studies on the subjective experiences of individuals with ASD and attempted to explore RRBIs in terms of their meaning for the individual. ...
Conference Paper
Aim: Restricted and Repetitive Behaviours and Interests (RRBIs) are a diagnostic feature of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The literature on RRBIs interventions has been critiqued for focusing on symptom reduction instead of broader outcomes which are meaningful to autistic Children and Young People (CYP). Given the ecosystemic and CYP-centred framework within which most EPs practice, the extent to which EP practice and research can inform each other is unclear. The aim of this research was to bridge research and practice on RRBIs, using Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model as a framework for discussion. Method: Part 1: A systematic scoping review (SSR) of RRBI intervention design that examined how outcomes are defined, by whom, and whether interventions are effective in achieving broader outcomes. The SSR included 564 studies. Part 2: Focus groups with 7 EPs and 3 Trainee EPs to elicit their views on how they practice with regard to RRBIs. Findings: The SSR indicated that the reasons for intervention were not clearly reported, and the intended broader outcomes were not consistently measured. CYP views were rarely reported. Parent/caregiver and teacher views on RRBIs were largely summarised in short statements of negative impact. There were few reports of collaborative approaches to setting outcomes. A discussion of a subset of studies that defined and measured reasons for intervention suggested that changes in RRBIs sometimes, but not always, are associated with changes in broader outcomes. The EP focus groups emphasised understanding the meaning / function of behaviour and advocating against normalisation. EPs suggested that they avoid the RRBI term because it implies deficit and because of its limitations in understanding behaviour. Conclusion: Current intervention literature is limited in informing when and for what purpose intervention on RRBIs may be effective. Barriers to meaningful collaboration between research and practice are discussed. EPs can contribute to reframing RRBI research with a focus on meaningful outcomes for autistic CYP and their families.
... In this review, six studies, [56]- [61] used eye-tracking and gaze analysis to measure fixation frequency, duration, and AOI (Area of Interest) responses from children's gaze towards social and nonsocial stimuli in images and videos. The studies hypothesized that children with ASD prefer circumscribed interests (CIs) [93], preferring specific animated characters, toys, or activities. Researchers use the gaze preference of children on the content of images or AOI to make ASD vs. TD classification In the experiment by [56], TD and ASD groups observed six scenic images with social (e.g., people) or without social cues (e.g., bowl). ...
Article
Full-text available
Background: Two-year delay is reported between the first developmental concern raised by the parents and the diagnosis of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), delaying the start of early intervention programs most beneficial within the first three years. Aim: Evaluate the role of technology in ASD detection by answering four research questions analyzing 1) evolution of technology, 2) use of various bio-behavioral data sources, 3) demographic categories, databases, controls, comparators, and assessment instruments, and 4) data collection, processing, and outcomes of the technology-based methods in ASD detection. Methods: Scoping review included behavioral-based ASD screening and diagnostic studies, published between 1st January 2011 to 31st December 2021 in PUBMED, SCOPUS, and IEEE Xplore databases for children under six years. The studies were assessed using the Critical Appraisal Skills Programm (CASP) and the PRISMA scoping review checklist (PRISMA-ScR). Results: The shortlisted 35 studies were categorized into seven bio-behavioral categories. The review suggested extensive use of machine learning (ML) and Deep Learning (DL) technologies with multimodal structured and unstructured data to detect infants at risk of ASD and Other developmental delays (ODD) as early as 9 to 12 months. However, the review reported various internal and external validity threats. Conclusion: Technology can significantly improve the current ASD detection process. The validation and adoption of technology can be fast-tracked by 1) designing robust study protocols, 2) executing multi-cultural field trials, 3) standardizing datasets, data quality and feature engineering methods, 4) recruiting statistically significant participants from ASD, typically developing (TD) and other developmental disorders (ODD) groups to ensure technological generalization, validation, and adoption outside laboratory settings.
... A penchant for anthropomorphic rather than human social stimuli is well documented in the autistic community (for a review, see . Animals and cartoons consistently appear in studies that document and categorize autistic people's restricted interests (RIs) (Cho et al., 2017;Klin et al., 2007;Nowell et al., 2021;South et al., 2005), a common feature of the autistic phenotype that may help explain social differences in the population (Carter et al., 2020). While time spent engaging with any RI is enjoyable (Mercier et al., 2000), engagement with anthropomorphic RIs may also support ToM development, as reported by autistic adolescents and their parents (Rozema, 2015). ...
Article
Full-text available
Prior research suggests that while autistic people may demonstrate poorer facial emotion recognition when stimuli are human, these differences lessen when stimuli are anthropomorphic. To investigate this further, this work explores emotion recognition in autistic and neurotypical adults (n = 196). Groups were compared on a standard and a cartoon version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. Results indicated that autistic individuals were not significantly different from neurotypicals on the standard version. However, autistic people outperformed neurotypicals on the cartoon version. The implications for these findings regarding emotion recognition deficits and the social motivation account of autism are discussed and support the view of socio‐cognitive differences rather than deficits in this population. The Reading the Mind in the Eyes test and a cartoon version were tested on autistic and neurotypical adults. Autistic adults were not significantly different on the original test compared to neurotypicals, but they outperformed neurotypical adults on the cartoon version.
... The etiology of RRB remains unclear. It has been postulated that RRB might serve the purposes of reducing high arousal levels (Hutt et al., 1964;Repp et al., 1992) or deriving pleasure (Baron-Cohen, 1989;Klin et al., 2007). Notably, a sizable body of literature indicated that RRB could be the result of executive dysfunction (Turner, 1999;Lopez et al., 2005;D'Cruz et al., 2013). ...
... However, the extent to which listener interest can influence speaker behavior has yet to be evaluated. Restricted (or circumscribed) interests are a common characteristic of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that can have a negative impact on socialization and relationships (American Psychiatric Association, 2013;Klin et al., 2007;Mercier et al., 2000;South et al., 2005;Turner-Brown et al., 2011). The listener behavior of those with restricted interests may impact who talks to them and what is said. ...
Article
Full-text available
Listener behavior has been shown to influence speaker behavior. However, little is known about the extent to which listener behavior can influence countertherapeutic outcomes. This study evaluated the influence of listener interest on the topics presented by adult participants conversing with an experimenter acting as an individual who exhibited restricted interests. Each session consisted of a 5-min conversation, during which the participant was instructed to talk about 3 topics. We compared the duration of topic presentation across phases in which the experimenter behaved as an interested listener for 1 topic or for all 3 topics. Results showed that topic presentation was controlled by listener interest and all participants reported that the simulation was believable, acceptable, and useful. Although preliminary, these findings have implications for understanding possible undesirable interactions between individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder who exhibit restricted interests and their peers or caregivers.
... Indeed, several previous studies have suggested that sex differences only emerge for specific CI, rather than overall domain (e.g., Hiller et al., 2014;Nowell et al., 2019). Therefore, it will be important for future studies to supplement general diagnostic or RRB instruments (e.g., DISCO or RBS-R) with dedicated CI measures such as the special interests motivation scale (Grove et al., 2016) or the Yale survey of special interests (Klin et al., 2007) in order to refine our understanding of sex differences in specific aspects of this RRB subdomain. ...
Article
Full-text available
The current study aimed to explore the factor structure of a broad range of restricted and repetitive behaviors (RRB) within the autism spectrum. Exploratory structural equation modeling was conducted using individual item-level data from the Diagnostic Interview for Social and Communication Disorders (DISCO). DISCO is a comprehensive semi-structured interview used by clinicians to elicit information from caregivers about the individual's profile of development and behavior. Data from a sample of 226 individuals with a clinical diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (189 males; Mage = 11.82 years, SDage = 7.87) were analyzed. The six-factor structure provided the most optimal and interpretable fit (comparative fit index = 0.944, Tucker-Lewis index = 0.923, root mean square error of approximation = 0.018). Derived factors were interpreted as repetitive motor behaviors (RMB), unusual sensory and object focused interests (USOI), sensory sensitivity (SS), insistence on sameness (IS), circumscribed interests (CI) and stereotyped language (SL). Age was significantly negatively associated with RMB, USOI and SL but not with SS, IS or CI factor scores. None of the factors were associated with sex. ASD individuals with intellectual disability (ID) had the highest RMB, USOI, SS and SL scores while those without ID had the highest IS and CI scores. Our findings provide preliminary evidence for the utility of the DISCO as a comprehensive measure of several distinct RRB domains in both research and clinical contexts. Importantly, the current investigation highlights crucial areas for measurement development.
... The etiology of RRB remains unclear. It has been postulated that RRB might serve the purposes of reducing high arousal levels (Hutt et al., 1964;Repp et al., 1992) or deriving pleasure (Baron-Cohen, 1989;Klin et al., 2007). Notably, a sizable body of literature indicated that RRB could be the result of executive dysfunction (Turner, 1999;Lopez et al., 2005;D'Cruz et al., 2013). ...
Article
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Restricted and repetitive behavior is a core symptom of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) characterized by features of restrictedness, repetition, rigidity, and invariance. Few studies have investigated how restrictedness is manifested in motor behavior. This study aimed to address this question by instructing participants to perform the utmost complex movement. Twenty children with ASD and 23 children with typical development (TD) performed one-dimensional, left-right arm oscillations by demonstrating varying amplitudes and frequencies. The entropy of amplitude and velocity was calculated as an index of kinematic complexity. Results showed that the velocity entropy, but not the amplitude entropy, was significantly lower in ASD than in TD (p < 0.01), suggesting restricted kinematics. Further analysis demonstrated that a significantly higher proportion of the velocity values was allocated at a low-speed level in the children with ASD (p < 0.01). A qualitative comparison of the complex movement with movement at preferred frequency suggested that the children with ASD might be less likely to shift away from the preferred movement. However, our study can be improved in terms of recruiting a larger sample of participants, measuring the level of motivation, and collecting both complex and preferred movements of the same participant.
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The educational services available for fully included middle schoolers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the general education setting are not well known. Even less is known about how the executive functioning (EF) deficits of such youth are addressed in the classroom. The current study sought to identify the challenges, including EF, that middle schoolers with ASD face and the services that they receive on their Individualized Education Program (IEP), and also explore specific strategies used to build EF skills at school. A convenience data sample was obtained from focus groups with educational personnel ( n = 15), and qualitative analyses of IEPs were conducted in middle schoolers with ASD with EF deficits ( n = 23). Results confirmed that social communication and EF challenges are common. Multiple services and accommodations were identified, although EF challenges were rarely targeted on IEPs. Factors that may facilitate the success of EF strategies in the classroom are discussed.
Chapter
Decades of research indicate that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lifelong disorder that ranges in severity across individuals. Though the central diagnostic components of the disorder center on social communication and restrictive and repetitive behaviors, ASD may influence many other features of an individual's life. This article includes an overview of the disorder and diagnostic process. We provide an in-depth look at various domains that may intersect with ASD including social and language development, play and leisure, wellness, and adolescence and adulthood. Characteristics of contemporary services are highlighted including an emphasis on personalization, integration of the individual's strengths, and connection to family and cultural values.
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This study systematically asked whether individual topics or themes on which children with autism perseverated across a variety of settings (often called obsessions) could be used to create the theme for a socially appropriate game. Data collected within the context of a multiple baseline design revealed very low levels of social interaction during play periods in the baseline condition. In contrast, when the children with autism were taught a socially appropriate game (e.g., one child who perseverated on maps was taught a tag game played on a giant outline of a US map), the percent of social interactions increased dramatically and continued to be high during follow-up measures. Generalization measures indicated that following intervention, the children also demonstrated increases in social interaction during other play activities. The results are discussed in terms of incorporating obsession themes into common games to create intrinsically reinforcing appropriate activities for increasing social interactions, and in relation to developing activities that capitalize on the child with autism's interests, so that the child is a valued member of the peer group.
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The arrival of a book for review usually gives rise to pleasant anticipation, and whatever criticisms have to be made, it is that almost always possible to find some pleasant things to say. But finding praise for this tome is a problem — it is a volume too far. It is to be hoped that the authors
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The objective of this study was to report on the prevalence and correlates of anxiety and mood problems among 9- to 14- year-old children with Asperger syndrome (AS) and high-functioning autism. Children who received a diagnosis of autism (n 40) or AS (n 19) on a diagnostic interview when they were 4 to 6 years of age were administered a battery of cognitive and behavioural measures. Families were contacted roughly 6 years later (at mean age of 12 years) and assessed for evidence of psychiatric problems including mood and anxiety disorders. Compared with a sample of 1751 community children, AS and autistic children demonstrated a greater rate of anxiety and depression problems. These problems had a significant impact on their overall adaptation. There were, however, no differences in the number of anxiety and mood problems between the AS and autistic children within this high-functioning cohort. The number of psychiatric problems was not correlated with early autistic symptoms but was predicted to a small extent by early verbal/non-verbal IQ discrepancy scores. These data indicate that high-functioning PDD children are at greater risk for mood and anxiety problems than the general population but the correlates and risk factors for these comorbid problems remain unclear.
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Cognitive, home, and family factors that theoretically could influence whether or not preschoolers’ interests were focused on domains characterized by the acquisition of knowledge concerning object concepts (e.g., dinosaurs, horses) were assessed in a short-term longitudinal investigation of 211 4-year-olds. Boys were six times as likely as girls to manifest such interests. Logistic regression analysis indicated that children’s cognitive skills in conjunction with the degree to which families emphasized consistency, communication, educational activities, and provided time for free play were important in determining whether preschoolers would sustain their interests and begin to develop knowledge about conceptual domains. Implications of gender differences in interests aligned with conceptual domains for both the development of childhood expertise and the development of science literacy are considered.