Repetitive or unusual interests or behaviors
The third area of difference for those on the autism spectrum is repetitive or unusual behaviors and interests. One way this may be seen is with obsessive interests that are unusual either in their intensity or in their focus. You might often see someone on the spectrum who has an excellent memory for details of their special interest, and collects information or statistics about the special interest to a surprising degree. The preoccupation with the special interest may cause interference with other activities such as personal hygiene or toileting. Preoccupations may include anything ranging from weather to dates, schedules, phone numbers, license plates, Thomas the Train, Pokeman or other card collections, dinosaurs and countless others. The interest may be the kind of things in which their peers are interested (such as dinosaurs for preschoolers) but the intensity may be what is unusual. For others, the focus of the interest is the unusual part (such as phone numbers for a first grader). Occasionally we see a marked lack of interests for individuals on the spectrum.
I have to take a moment here and mention my ASD father’s special interest. He has had several, but his main obsession has been chess. He studied it for hours every day for most of his life, and he had one of the biggest chess libraries in the country, with books in many languages. He then studied those languages so he could read the chess books he collected. He even played a blindfold chess exhibitions where he played over 20 other players at one time. Blindfold chess exhibitions are reported to be one of the most prodigious feats of human memory that exist!
Inflexible rituals or routines
Another way behavior differences get manifested is with adherence to inflexible routines or rituals. Parents have sometimes observed this as one of the first signs of autism, when their young toddler or pre-schooler tantrums whenever they drive a different route to a familiar spot, such as to the grocery store. The ASD individual may become very upset by such changes in routine, and want to rigidly follow the routine even if the routine no longer makes sense under the circumstances. Adjustment to change can be tough and the person may panic. These routines may manifest during various aspects of daily life, such as the need to eat particular foods in a specific order, or to have the food separated on the plate in a particular manner or to always shower or bathe following a set routine.
Self Stimulatory behavior
A third way this difference is seen is with certain motor mannerisms, which are often referred to as “stimming”, short for self stimulation This might take the form of hand or finger flapping or twisting, flicking fingers, spinning, or rocking. The movements may be self injurious (head-banging, self-biting, self-pinching) or sensory seeking. Triggers may be predictable (frustration, anxiety, excitement) or seemingly random, although usually with effort the trigger can be identified.
Focus on the parts instead of the whole
Lastly, a fourth difference that is observed is when the ASD person is preoccupied with parts of objects. For instance, you might see a child spinning the wheels on a toy car repetitively, rather than playing with the car in the way it was intended. Or a child might be interested in the sensory qualities of an object, and might sniff toys rather than play with them. You may see an ASD child be preoccupied with the edges of things, spinning objects such as fans, or shiny surfaces.
In the next post, I’ll discuss how all of these differences, discussed in these last three posts, get sorted into the different diagnoses of Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome and PDD. NOS. However, keep in mind I’m not a big believer in the use of these terms, since research has been finding there are not real differences among those diagnosed with one label over another.
Question: What are some of the special interests you have observed in the people you know on the spectrum?