Course of Fascination: Special Interests in Asperger Autism

Research Article

Austin J Psychiatry Behav Sci. 2015; 2(3): 1046.

Course of Fascination: Special Interests in Asperger Autism

Roy M* and Dillo W

Department of Psychiatry, Social Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Hannover Medical School, Germany

*Corresponding author: Mandy Roy, Department of Psychiatry, Social Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Hannover, Germany

Received: December 12, 2015; Accepted: December 20, 2015; Published: December 22, 2015


Objective: Special interests are one of the core symptoms in autistic disorders. Nevertheless, these interests are a rarely investigated topic and little is known about their course and their presence in adulthood.

Methods: 39 adult individuals with an Asperger autism (19 female, 20 male patients; age range 21-53 years) described their interests in child- and adulthood via questionnaire with regard to the topic, age of onset and duration of the interest as well as to the time they spent with it and the sensed intensity. Data were compared between child- and adulthood and between both genders.

Results: There were no significant differences between child- and adulthood and not between female and male individuals. In average our participants had 4 interests in both life phases and spent on about 5 days between 2 and 3 hours respectively with them. Their mean intensity of interest was “strong”.

Conclusion: Special interests seem to be of great importance for individuals with autism not only in childhood, but also in adulthood. Adults spend time with them in a similar manner and feel same intensity of interests as in childhood. Therefore, special interests appear to be a stable symptom in autistic disorders and could be used as a pleasant resource by the persons concerned.

Keywords: Asperger syndrome; Autism; Adulthood; Special interests


ASD: Autism Spectrum Disorders; AS: Asperger Syndrome; SD: Standard Deviation


The presence of special interests, which are unusual regarding to their content or extent, is one of the core symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) [1]. Nevertheless, special interests are a rarely investigated topic and little is known about their course in adulthood.

Probably more than 90% of individuals with asperger autism do have a special interest [2]. Kinds of topics are broad. They can be about nature, such as about dinosaurs or desert reptiles. Also technical topics, like data about cars or stages of a railway network, can become a special interest [3]. Even extraordinary objects could be focus of attention, such as toilet brushes [4]. In childhood, technical topics are the most frequent ones [5]. Thereby topics seem to be similar in different cultures [6]. In some cases special interests are rather about facts and data than about the subject itself, like an interest for match scores or details of players of soccer in children with an autism who do not play football by themselves [6].

Compared to interests of non-autistic individuals, special interests of persons with an autism are more often referring to systemizing domains, additionally they are more specific and comprise a greater number of interests overall [7], only about 30% of non-autistic children develop more intense interests [8].

Investigations of children and adolescents with an Asperger autism between 7 and 21 years showed that they are inextricably entwined with their special interests and when they are involved in them, they feel more positive about themselves as well as more enthusiastic, proud and calmed. Additionally they wish to be appreciated for their topic by peers [4,9].

There is also evidence for gender differences. Girls with an autistic disorder often show “typical” interests, like for dolls or horses or social themes [2,4,6].

The importance of special interests for children with autism is further underlined by a greater attention towards the special interest compared to social targets, such as faces in arrangements with visual stimuli [10]. Bodfish hypothesized that special interests are activating the neuronal reward system in individuals with an autism [11], similar to its activation activated by social stimuli in non-autistic persons [12].

The broad expertise in the individual special interest can lead to success in an according profession in adulthood [2].

Reported data emphasize the meaning of special interests for children and adolescents with an autism. But there are few data about special interests in adulthood, if and in which manner they are still existing, how much time adults spend with them - in comparison to childhood and with a special view on the gender. That was why we conducted this study.

Materials and Methods


The study was conducted in Germany. We explored 39 adult individuals with an Asperger autism (19 female, 20 male patients; age range 21-53 years; mean age 36.77 years), who sought evaluation in our outpatient clinic to establish a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome (AS). All included patients had at least a certificate for secondary education and a sufficient linguistic and cognitive level for the study.

Written informed consent was obtained from all participants according to procedures approved by the Institutional Ethics Committees of the Hannover Medical School.

Diagnostic procedure

AS in adulthood was diagnosed using a self-developed, semistructured interview (Diagnostic interview: Asperger syndrome in adulthood) that thoroughly assesses the patients according to DSM-IV criteria [13,14]. After a general section focusing on medical anamnesis (somatic, psychiatric, and social histories, including childhood development), the interview continues with a special section involving AS that includes the following items with regard to childhood and adulthood: social interaction and communication (e.g. friendships with/relationship to/interest in peers, and being a loner and suffering from loneliness); special interests (e.g. spending leisure time, and interest in specific objects/topics); stereotypic behavior (e.g. rituals, and reaction towards disturbances of rituals); and other characteristics (e.g. clumsiness, and sensitivity towards noises/smells/ tactile stimuli). Eye contact, mimicking expressions, speech melody, “mirroring” of affections, and clumsiness were observed during the interview, too. The interview was conducted by the same experienced investigator. Because in some cases individuals with AS have poor insight or may not report events accurately or fully, the diagnosis of AS, if available, was complemented by information from personal/ telephone interviews, or in written form from observers during childhood and/or adulthood, such as partners, friends, parents, or siblings. In some cases, school reports were consulted. The diagnosis of AS was only confirmed if DSM-IV criteria were clearly fulfilled based on clinical judgment and available information during the interview without a delay of cognitive or linguistic development in childhood.

A standardized interview or test for diagnosing AS in adults according to DSM-IV criteria that is based on information obtained from sources other than parents is not available. Even if the parents are available, adults often do not wish them to be consulted.

Assessment of special interests

Every participant received a questionnaire to assess special interests. Kinds of interests, age of onset and end of interest, engaged hours per day and spent days per week as well as intensity of engagement were explored (Figure 1). Participants were instructed to remember and list all special interests across their lifespan.