Restricted Interests in Autism Spectrum Disorder – Helpful or Disruptive in the Classroom?

Written by: Manu Schuetze 

What were the things you couldn’t stop talking about when you were a child? Or if you have children yourself now, what are they obsessed about? Dinosaurs? Thomas the Tank Engine? Ponies? Or do they want to watch the same movie over and over again? Probably every child goes through a phase in which they can become quite obsessed with something. While these interests can be annoying for parents (“Sigh… Frozen? Again?”), they usually don’t interfere much with the child’s everyday life. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder have these interests too; however their interests are usually stronger and more intense.  They can occupy their attention so much that trying to disengage them causes a lot of distress to the child. These strong interests have been called restricted interests and are a core symptom for Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Restricted interests have the potential to limit interactions with others. They can also interrupt the child’s attention to follow a teacher’s instructions, e.g. when a child concentrates on light reflections in the window and ignores the teacher. Thus, restricted interests are often discouraged or children with Autism Spectrum Disorder are often separated from typically developing children to attend schools for children with special needs.

However, there are also a lot of positive elements to restricted interests: children can show expertise and feel good about themselves, they are motivated to learn more about them and they are engaged and concentrated – all important parts of learning behaviour. Some children develop the wish to tell other children about their interests and overcome initial shy moments and can even learn how to engage in conversations (“If you let the other child tell you about their hobbies, you can tell them about yours, too!”). Hence, some people suggest to include restricted interests in the classroom and let children with Autism Spectrum Disorder learn side-by-side typically developing children. This inclusive education is becoming more and more accepted and is implemented in many countries by law already.

Researchers in the UK have now looked at all studies that addressed the question of whether or not including restricted interests of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder is beneficial or harmful and found that beneficial effects outweigh detrimental effects. Most of these studies found that children’s motivation and engagement in tasks grew when restricted interests were used to reward the child, e.g. when a sentence was read correctly, the teacher gave the child some time to read in his favourite book of Thomas the Tank Engine. Notably, some studies found that children initially performed worse in tasks when their restricted interests were offered as rewards, but this changed over time and the child’s performance improved overall.

These studies draw a positive picture of using restricted interests in a more structured way to encourage and motivate children with Autism Spectrum Disorder to learning. When more people and institutions recognize the benefit of restricted interests for a child’s learning behaviour (regardless of a diagnosis), it might even be possible to include their interests directly into the teaching process (not just as rewards): If a child is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, why not teach them the numbers by letting them count parts on Thomas the Tank Engine, or teach them reading by reading Thomas the Tank Engine books? Even more advanced concepts in high school could be explained based on an adolescent’s interests, rather than using abstract concepts.

Restricted interests – to some people, they might sound like a barrier and a symptom that needs to be treated, however, we believe that they can be important and useful to engage children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in learning.


Original Review Study

Gunn, K.C. & Delafield-Butt, J.T. (2015). Teaching Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder With Restricted Interests. A Review of Evidence for Best Practice. Review of Educational Research.