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An Interest in Interests

People with autism have restricted and repetitive behaviors that can be characterized by intense interests or preoccupations in specific objects or topics. Often, having unusual preoccupations and specific interests can have both positive and negative impacts.

Sometimes specific and unique interests and preoccupations, such as fascination with lampposts, may interfere with a person’s social interactions and families often have difficulty managing the amount of time a child may spend on activities related to their interests. Many times, interests can also interfere with school functioning because a child may have difficulty attending to tasks that are unrelated to their interests.

In order to better understand how these focused interests affect people with autism, a team of researchers including Thompson Center clinical psychologist and MU assistant clinical professor Dr. Kerri Nowell, Thompson Center Executive Director Dr. Stephen Kanne, and MU doctoral candidate Courtney Jorgenson are investigating the type and impact of these focused interests and preoccupations in people with autism.

For their study, the researchers developed an online survey that was administered to individuals who are included in the SPARK dataset, which a girl plays with a dollis a database of tens of thousands of families with autism from across the country. The researchers are completing the pilot stage of this study and have nearly 2000 surveys completed by families across the country.

In addition to describing the types of interests and preoccupations people with autism have, the team was interested in investigating differences across age and gender. Some previous research suggested that a reason females with autism are not identified as frequently or as early as males is because they can blend in socially more easily, and may have more “socially appropriate” circumscribed interests such as art or drawing. However, Nowell says the most surprising finding based on a preliminary analysis is that there appear to be fewer differences in interests and preoccupations across gender than anticipated.

“It is important to recognize that there may be beneficial aspects of these interests and preoccupations,” Dr. Nowell said. “For example, some individuals with autism have reported that it can help social interactions with other people who share their interests, such as talking about sports or cars.  In depth knowledge of a topic may also help with career development, and there is some evidence that having circumscribed interests is associated with a reduced risk of mood and anxiety difficulties.

“This project is exciting for many reasons, not least of which is the researchers’ use of the SPARK research matching program,” said Nicole Takahashi, head of the Thompson Center research core. “This is one of the first research projects to make use of the enormous network of families with autism that is being formed by SPARK project and we have already seen great benefits to being able to connect with thousands of families interested in participating in autism research. This will be the first of many future Thompson Center research projects that take advantage of this amazing resource.”

Nowell says they plan on continuing to modify the survey used within the study based on participant feedback and administer the improved measure to a larger population in the future.