In order for a child to have solid social skills, it is important to have a range of interests and to tune into the interests of others. Children who are very restricted in their interests tend to annoy others or simply bore them in conversation. They often change topics or seem to randomly bring up subjects. Common special interests are: origami, law enforcement, my little pony, natural disasters, Thomas the Train, Minecraft, Anime, and mechanical devices such as air conditioners or car washes.
A related social concern is repetitive behavior. Children who repeatedly move or do things over and over, are said to have repetitive behavior. Often people talk about repetitive behavior as repeated gross and fine motor movements. This can be hand-flapping, finger flicking, spinning in circles or several other things. Restricted and repetitive behavior can be subtler than what many people think.
Repeating the same phrase over and over or developing a very specific interest that allows your child to shut out other people can be termed ‘restricted and repetitive.’ These subtler repetitive nuances can be evidence of the same problem that larger repetitive movements are but often parents or professionals take a longer time to notice the impact of these or develop concerns.
A parent may have concerns about restricted and repetitive language and interests when these limit a child’s ability to connect socially with others, to be flexible in the learning environment and to carry on appropriate conversations.
A child who turns every conversation back to Minecraft or Pokémon may start to annoy his friends, even if they too enjoy the topic. A child who repeats him or herself often may also begin to have difficulty connecting with others because of the repetitive nature of his or her speech.
Interests like Carrier air conditioning units, Operation Desert Storm, the origin of Pluto can be harmless, but if taken to the extreme, can lead to social challenges.
An Example. One author of this website worked with a bright and adorable child who was obsessed with air conditioning units. He spent all breaks looking out the window and identifying the types of units he could see on other roofs or buildings. When asked about his siblings he identified each by sharing a name and a favorite air conditioning brand.
Any conversation was turned back to air conditioners. While he was adorable, social challenges were becoming evident because he was not able to shift his focus and his topic of conversation for very long. His interest was not terribly common among kids his age and would become less accepted as he got older.
What do challenges with Varied Interests look like?
- Struggling with social language?
- Repeating himself in conversation?
- Using the same comment or phrase over and over?
- Struggling to talk to peers, in spite of adequate expressive language?
- Only able to talk about certain topics and turning conversation to these?
- Interested in obscure or specific things like the diurnal turtle?
- Lecturing others about something specific like trench warfare?
- Getting stuck on a topic like air conditioning units?
- Repetitive in interests, topics and language but not in behaviors?
Why is Varied Interests happening?
Clinically, restricted or repetitive topics, interests or language are of most concern when they have an impact on an individual’s ability to connect socially and form meaningful social relationships with others.
Most often restricted or repetitive interests or language, when occurring to a significant degree, point to an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Autism Spectrum Disorder includes challenges in social communication and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior or interests. Social communication challenges in autism often include difficulty with knowing what to say, carrying on back-and-forth conversations and reciprocity.
Many individuals with ASD speak clearly, in full sentences and with advanced vocabulary. They may use formal or precocious language and recall detailed information, and they may try to converse with peers and adults, but they tend to struggle with reciprocity (making social connections) and with overuse of repetitive topics or statements.
Restricted Interest. Repetitive topics in autism tend to elicit images of dinosaurs, Minecraft or Thomas the Train. It is classic for young children on the Spectrum to learn everything about a topic and provide facts and details that their parents could never remember. They may navigate the computer to certain videos and segments about their favorite interest while not being able to read or even speak.
Other children will talk on end, memorizing entire factual books about a topic. It can be tricky to discern these repetitive topics from typical toddler behavior that includes repetition as a part of learning.
Clinically it is important to look at the restricted interest in the context of its ability to create social interaction and reciprocity. A young child interested in dinosaurs who is rigid about what each is called, how they play, and what they eat may not be flexible and connected with a parent in pretend play.
A child who brings the dinosaur book into a parent’s lap, points to the pictures, labels, makes eye contact and gives you turns to point and label, while smiling at you cuddling and saying, “mama look!” may love dinosaurs, but this topic may not be interfering with social connections.
Little Ones. With young children it is important to think about whether the repetitive interest hinders social connections and interactive play. It is also notable that the restricted interest could be almost anything and is not limited to dinosaurs or trains.
Children. As children get older, they may have a favorite interest that stands out but does not interfere with life. For example, a child may love soccer, play every day, and sleep with the soccer ball beside the bed. This may just be an interest.
Soccer could also be a repetitive topic in autism if it becomes socially isolating. It is important to consider whether this child likes to attend birthday parties at the zoo, can play with friends in the pool and can socially connect without mention of soccer. Conversely, the child who brings his ball everywhere and seems to ignore others while he is focused on his dribble may have an interest that is impeding his ability to socially connect.
It is also important to note that for some children, teenagers or adults, these obsessions change over time.
One adult shared that he could solve any Rubik’s cube as a child, he spent all allowance on Rubik’s cubes and spent all his free time on the puzzles. As an adolescent he liked drawing skyscrapers and spent all his free time on that activity. Finally, as an adult he made tiny models. He had no kitchen table because all the surfaces in his apartment were covered with tiny modeling materials. He never had anyone over because he was concerned they might mess up a model and he explained that he “really did not have the space.”
Repetitive statements might include the repetition of “I can’t say that I know” as an answer for every emotional question posed by an examiner. Another child might use “fortunately” as the start of many sentences. Often these words do not fit in all the contexts they are used in. Sometimes the words are nonsensical or are blends of two different words (fantastic and brilliant becomes “fantilliant”).
In cases like this, the examiner always must ask, “what are you saying?” or “what word is that?” to get the explanation for the created word. This is relevant because it reflects a lack of understanding or perspective taking about what the examiner knows and what the child/client knows.
An examiner may tally repetitive statementsor phrases in the margin of the ADOS-2, an autism assessment that focuses on social communication and restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests. The authors of this site have tallied over 50 repetitive statements in an hour long session.
Repetitive statements relate to a child getting stuck and struggling to vary social responses. The same child may answer fact based questions perfectly, but the open ended nature of conversation often means that a child with autism has no idea what to say. This also relates to an individual with autism having trouble taking another person’s perspective. This deficit can result in repetitive statements, struggling to shift topics and at times sharing untrue information because of a need to say something.
How can I manage Varied Interests at home?
To improve repetitive language or increase variation in topics of interest, a parent can do several things.
First, use and model language for your child. Encourage back and forth conversation on a variety of topics. Practice asking questions, answering questions and sharing information back and forth. Vary activities and conversation topics at home. Try and introduce new things that may be related to an interest but with an effort to expand that interest.
Second, before a playdate practice specifically what topics your child may talk about and practice things to say. Help him come up with fun (true) things about himself to share with others. Help her think about cool things to talk about related to the topic of the playdate or party.
Prepare your child to do and play and talk about something other than his or her specific interest. Practice talking about friends’ interests. Point these out to your child and help think of things to say that relate to these interests.
Third, get your child enrolled in social activitiesthat are low risk, like a Lego club, cooking class, robotics club, swimming, etc. Find something that has team aspects but is not as competitive as a typical team sport. Start with something that has a structure but is about individual performance. Practice what to talk about here and things to say.
Vary activities so they may relate to specific interests, but they may expand. If your child likes Minecraft, try a robotics club. If she loves to make pancakes, go for a general baking class with other kids. Having these chances to socialize and practice conversation while developing interests will be helpful.
Fourth, consider a social skills groupwith clinicians who are trained to help children develop conversation skills and engage in back and forth conversation as well as social interaction like playing games, talking about different topics or working together to solve problems or puzzles.
Fifth, Provide breaks and down time.Give your child time to talk about his favorite interests and outlets that focus on these. Provide a space for these interests and topics while also encouraging other things and supporting him or her in language and conversation. Let your child have time devoted to dinosaurs, air conditioners, history books and try to relate the restricted topic to other interests. Encourage variety and reward your child with time to do his or her favorite things.