The Development of Interests in Children with Autism: A Method to Establish Baselines for Analyses and Evaluation

Article excerpt

By definition, children with autism have restricted activities and interests and appear to be motivated by a limited number of unusual events rather than motivated by the wide variety of events common to their peers without disabilities (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). It has long been recognized that the limited or unusual motivation observed in children with autism is a central concern having implications for intervention and for long-term outcome (e.g., Lovaas, et al., 1966; Ferster, 1961; Koegel & Egel, 1979). The purpose of this paper is to provide rationales for expanding the interests of children within early intervention programs, to highlight promising practices for expanding interests, and to offer a preliminary method for establishing baselines that capture the development of interests and allow practitioners to objectively evaluate the effects of their efforts to diversify the interests of the children they serve.


Many child development theories, including behavioral systems theories, suggest that one of the ways children develop is through their engagement in play and through their continuously expanding interests, allowing contact with new environmental stimuli that result in further potential for increased knowledge and advanced skill repertoires (Novak & Pelaez, 2004). In fact, when introducing the concept of acquired reinforcers, Novak and Pelaez suggest that, "It is partly the unique set of reinforcers a person acquires that determines that person's special repertoire of behaviors (pp. 194, 2004)." In other words, our behaviors appear to be strongly tied to our interests or preferences for events. One conceptual and pragmatic model for understanding the effects of varied interests on children is the "behavioral cusp" (Rosales-Ruiz & Baer, 1997). The term behavioral cusp describes the outcomes of any behavior-change procedure that produces broad, pervasive, or especially important changes in the child's environments, reinforcers or opportunities. Increased rates and diversification of interests and the subsequent opportunities that emerge could be viewed as behavioral cusps in children with autism (Ala'i-Rosales, Smith, & Elden-Smith, 2008). At the most fundamental level it is possible that understanding how to increase the diversity and number of interests in children with autism can have important implications for their overall development, ranging from occupying one's time in safe and productive ways to having meaningful activities to share with loved ones. Furthermore, as interventionists, one of our primary instructional tools is the systematic and careful arrangement of reinforcing events (e.g., Anderson & Romancyk, 1999; Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). This can become challenging when the learner has a limited number of interests.

In summary, the benefits of monitoring and developing new and diverse reinforcers, especially related to social attention, would be useful in all teaching environments and may foster important and pervasive changes in the child's overall development.


Although there has been a considerable body of autism intervention research directed towards understanding the variables that produce the development of verbal behavior (c.f., Goldstien, 2002) and social behavior (c.f., McConnell, 2002), there is limited information about how to produce new interests (e.g., Wolery & Garfinkle, 2002; Wolery, Barton, & Hine, 2005). This area, however, has received attention in research regarding diagnostic classification and definition. In the 2005 edition of the Handbook of Autism, Chawarska and Volkmar (2005) provide an overview of the research aimed at understanding the developmental differences between very young children with autism and children without autism. Although the research is emerging and there are methodological limitations, Chawarska and Volkmar (2005) summarized several areas that may be important markers for the development of measures and procedures to expand interests. …