“We are new to the world of autism spectrum disorders. Is it common for a child with high functioning autism to spend all (or certainly most) of his time doing only one thing? Our 5-year-old son would spend 24-hours-a-day telling you about dinosaurs if he didn’t have to sleep. Should we just go along with the program, or attempt to curb this appetite for dinosaur trivia?”
I would recommend against curbing the appetite – unless it gets in the way of fulfilling his responsibilities (e.g., homework, chores, etc.). Parents and teachers can use a child’s special interest to their advantage in multiple ways.
Kids with High-Functioning Autism and Aspergers often display behavior, interests, and activities that are restricted and repetitive and are sometimes abnormally intense or focused. They may stick to inflexible routines, move in stereotyped and repetitive ways, or preoccupy themselves with parts of objects.
Pursuit of specific and narrow areas of interest is one of the most striking features of High-Functioning Autism and Aspergers. These children may collect volumes of detailed information on a relatively narrow topic (e.g., dinosaurs, trains, deep fat fryers etc.) without necessarily having genuine understanding of the broader topic (e.g., the “Aspie” might memorize camera model numbers while caring little about photography). This behavior is usually apparent by grade school, typically age 5 or 6.
Children with High-Functioning Autism and Aspergers latch onto topics and interests that are often considered a hobby by others. However, they develop an intense interest in the subject and may become experts in it. Some obsessions involve physical collections while others are fact-based.
Some of the common interests that characterize children with High-Functioning Autism and Aspergers include:
accumulation of objects or facts and information
intense attachment to objects in a collection
agitation if the collection is disturbed or moved out of order
animals and nature (this often starts with a fascination for dinosaurs and may end up with expert knowledge about animal or insect groups like spiders or snakes)
for boys, card collections like baseball or superheroes
for girls, Barbie dolls
interest in death and freaks
obsession that is accompanied by extreme motivation, attention and ability
obsession that is concentrated on to the exclusion of other activities
obsessions that dominate the child’s conversation
obsessions that dominate the child’s free time
public transport systems (e.g., the child may know every station in a subway system or travel around to visit old rail collections)
science fiction and fantasy
technical and scientific interests (e.g., vehicles, trains, aircraft, ships, volcanoes, astronomy, mathematics, numbers, chemistry, the periodic table, the weather)
Obsessions play an important role in the daily life of children with High-Functioning Autism and Aspergers. For example:
The interest may give them a sense of identity if they are considered to be an expert in the area.
The interest is associated with pleasure (e.g., a family trip on a steam train or a visit to a game park).
The interest is a form of relaxation. High-Functioning Autism kids thrive on routine, and familiarity and being able to lose themselves in an interest is a stress reliever.
Obsessions help them overcome anxiety when the interest is directed at something they fear. By understanding it, they strip it of its ability to “harm.”
High-Functioning Autism kids struggle with the unpredictability of life and social interaction, and feel secure within the confines of their special interest.
While special interests can be beneficial to kids on the spectrum, they can also cause difficulties and become a source of annoyance to those in their social circle. Although these special interests may change from time to time, they typically become more unusual and narrowly focused, and often dominate social interaction so much that the entire family may become immersed.
Stereotyped and repetitive motor behaviors are also a core part of the diagnosis of High-Functioning Autism and other ASDs (e.g., hand movements, flapping, twisting, complex whole-body movements, etc.). These are typically repeated in longer bursts and look more voluntary or ritualistic than tics, which are usually faster, less rhythmical and less often symmetrical.