People with autism may show intense interest
in subjects like science, technology, and art - developing, for
instance, a deep knowledge and appreciation of trains, mechanics,
animals, or anime and cartoons.
Historically, these "preferred interests" have been negatively
perceived and deemed as "restrictive" problems or even obsessions. Some
experts have thought that the intensity of the interests may interfere
with people on the spectrum's ability to develop social relationships by
limiting their topics of conversation.
‘Adults with autism have a positive view of preferred interests, both their childhood and current interests, and believe that these interests should be encouraged. They also see their interests as a way to alleviate anxiety.’
However, the field of autism is shifting away from this
deficit-focused perspective and is beginning to recognize the benefits
of preferred interests. Researchers are now arguing that preferred
interests can be strengths and that using these interests, rather than
discouraging them, can lead to better outcomes, including increasing
attention and engagement and reducing anxiety in individuals with
Adults on the autism spectrum see their interests as possible fields
of study and career paths, as well as ways to mitigate anxiety, finds a
study by NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human
The findings, published in the journal Occupational Therapy in Mental Health
continue a shift away from perceiving strong interests as a negative
and toward a perspective that recognizes the strengths and potential of
these personal pursuits.
This study examined the role that preferred interests play in adults
with autism, both how they viewed their childhood interests, as well as
how they have incorporated these interests into their current lives.
Study participants included 80 adults on the autism spectrum, ages
18-70, who completed a 29-question online survey about their preferred
The researchers found that adults with autism have a positive view
of preferred interests, both their childhood and current interests, and
believe that these interests should be encouraged. They also see their
interests as a way to alleviate anxiety, with 92% of respondents
reporting that they provide a calming effect.
"Many of our study participants referred to their preferred
interests as a 'lifeline'," said study author Kristie Patten Koenig,
chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy at NYU Steinhardt.
Reflecting on their childhoods, participants reported that the
majority (53%) of parents were supportive of their interests, but
only 10% of their teachers were supportive.
"This highlights an important gap in the educational practices of
supporting students on the spectrum and the potential for incorporating
their preferred interests in the classroom," said Koenig.
Preferred interests shifted for most children with autism as they
grew into adults, with 68% of participants reporting having
different preferred interests as they grew up - although 19% did
have similar interests throughout their lives.
The study also offers further support for utilizing interests as
strengths in the classroom and workplace. Of note, 86% of
participants reported that they currently have a job or are in an
educational or training program that incorporates their preferred
interests. For instance, one person surveyed with a strong interest in
computers and visual hypersensitivity is successful as a database
"The findings support a strength-based paradigm that is in contrast
to a deficit model that assumes restricted interests and sensory
sensitivities only have a negative impact," Koenig added. "Employment
opportunities that leverage individuals' preferred interests could lead
to successful professional experiences and contribute to individuals'
Lauren Hough Williams, founder of Square Peg Labs and co-project
director of the NYU ASD Nest Support Project, coauthored the study.