Autism Question #5: How to support obsessive interests in ASD without breaking the bank

Obsessive interests is one feature of ASD. These interests are often more intense, and more frequently socially isolating, in children with autism.

Special interests of autistic children can be highly intense and focused. But they don’t have to break the bank, with libraries and second hand supplies. You can practice the skill of delayed gratification with a wish list, and harness these interests to make school more motivating, while discouraging a ‘rock brain’ that’s stuck on one thing only.

What are obsessive interests in ASD?

The DSM-5 for Autism diagnosis contains the following criteria as part of identifying ASD:

B3. Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus.

In summary, kids are likely to have obsessions, interests that are very intense, and a narrow range of interests or preoccupations.

One study from 2013 found that autistic children were more likely to have a special interest that interfered with daily life. As a result, these interests led to repetitive behaviours (like repeating facts or questions over and over). As a result, the children were more socially isolated. This is partly due to the types of interests – neurotypical children were more interested in people and sports. These social activities can be shared with others and require interaction with people. However autistic children were more likely to have independent interests such as collecting items, cartoons or video games, lego, or factual information (like learning about cars, planes, history or movies).

What are the most common obsessions in ASD?

What are the most common obsessions? Surprisingly, across age groups, one interest stands out in this study on interests in high-functioning autistic children.

Age range (years)Most common interestMost common interest
Children with ASDNeurotypical Children
7-8video games (17%)television (25%)
9-11video games (20%)sports (22%)
12-14video games (29%)sports (20%)
15-17video games (33%)sports (39%)

There were also differences between interest by gender. Neurotypical males were most likely to be interested in sports, reading and video games. However, males with ASD were more likely to be interested in video games, lego, and playing games alone. Neurotypical females were most likely to be interested in reading and people. While obsessive interests of females with ASD were reported as maths/numbers, followed by music.

How to support an obsessive interest on the cheap

Because of the intensity of interests, they can require a lot of resources. Like, every book possibly ever written on the topic levels of detail. But there are some ways of supporting these interests without breaking the bank.

Public Libraries

Your local public library is a treasure trove of resources. Especially if the interest is fact-based and about collecting information, join your local library.

Want all the books on trains? Then go to the library and put them on hold.

Want an obscure book on history? Put in a purchase request with the library and they might add it to the collection.

Looking for a book on cars but don’t read independently – your library probably has an audiobook collection too.

Want all the cartoons, games or movies in a series? Likewise, check the library catalogue.

Great local libraries are often part of a wider system – like a state wide collection of libraries that are connected. That way you can borrow and request books from a huge collection.

Go second hand

Classic interests like lego, toy cars, or dolls/figurines can often be found in bulk on second-hand websites or in op shops. If you don’t want to spend big on setting up a collection, look for bulk packs of these items. Lots of people with grown up kids will sell off whole sets of lego, trains or cars. So, you could pick up a box of lego, a train track set, or a box of toy cars, for a fraction of the price of buying new. This is a also good option if you’re not sure if the interest will stick around, or if you want to quickly boost a toy collection.

Delayed gratification

Some interests are unavoidably expensive. Think of collectibles, video games, or brand new sets of lego.

We use a Wish List in our Planner to support delayed gratification so we don’t have to instantly buy things the kids see in shops.

From How to Stop kids wanting to buy everything:

When our son first got a gaming console, he proceeded to request almost every game published. We were not going to buy every game. So it went on the wish list. His wish list spanned two pages and was a compilation of around 50 game titles. That’s a lot of WANTS!

The wish list is a page in our Balance Planner. Whenever our children see or read about something they want, we write it down on their wish list. When it gets to a birthday or special gift-giving event (like Christmas), we can refer to the Wish List. Some items go on the wish list, and then get crossed out in a few months when that obsessive phase has passed. Other items stay and that’s when we know it’s something worth investing in for the next birthday.
The Wish List teaches our children delayed gratification and is an amazingly simple tool to avoid meltdowns in the shops. Our kids accept that if it goes on the wish list, the answer is not “no, you can’t have it” but “not yet”. It also helps them think carefully about their wants and needs come birthdays – and makes our present buying easy. They play an active role in curating and updating their wish list and helps them stop wanting to buy everything they see.

How to avoid getting too ‘stuck’ on obsessive interests?

This is where Social Thinking comes in. Yes, kids with autism have intense interests. Indeed these can be amazing as they collect up facts from all over and become walking encyclopedias on their chosen topic. However, there is also a dark side to being too hyper-focused on a topic.

It can lead to social isolation. This might be because:

  • all you talk about is the one topic, and so other people get annoyed of listening to you repeat it
  • you can’t share an imagination in a group, because you’re too stuck on your one interest and can’t compromise
  • you struggle to make friends. You can’t think about others and what they are interested in because you’re hyperfocused on your own interest. Asking questions about other people and engaging in conversation about their interests or shared interests is a way of making and maintaining friends.

Learning about concepts in Social Thinking such as

  • fixed vs flexible thinking – a reminder to not get stuck, but to be flexible in your thinking – maybe a compromise or listening to other ideas
  • ‘Rock Brain’ – Rock brain gets you stuck on your own ideas, only thinking about yourself and not about the group. Again, it’s a reminder to listen to others, be flexible in thinking, and maybe agree to follow someone else’s plan for the group.

Using special interests in ASD for good

School can be un-motivating if tasks don’t connect to special interests. While there are times when it’s important to be flexible and try to think about other things, harnessing special interests to make work motivating is also important.

Where there are choices, like a choice of topic for a presentation or a persuasive essay, use the special interests here. This will make research easier (because they already enjoy the topic), and the hard work more motivating. Our autistic son often does presentations on video games or history because these are his special interests. When our autistic daughter had to practice procedural writing, she didn’t want to do it on steps to wash a dog. She wanted to use her interest of guinea pigs. So it became steps to bath a guinea pig. In this way, using obsessive interests in ASD can make school work easier to complete, more interesting, and showcase the knowledge kids actually have.

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