What is a Restricted Interest in Childhood?
A restricted interest in childhood is a focus on a narrow range of interests that may seem unusual or somewhat obsessive as compared to the interests of similarly aged children.
For a child to develop relationships with peers, it is essential to have a range of interests and to tune into the interests of others.
Children who are very restricted in their interests tend to annoy others or simply bore them in conversation. They often change topics or seem to bring up subjects randomly, missing social cues that a peer or conversation partner is not interested.
Common special interests include origami, law enforcement, My Little Pony, natural disasters, Thomas the Train, Minecraft, Anime, and mechanical devices such as air conditioners or car washes.
Restricted interests can be more subtle. Sometimes a child may be especially interested in something more mainstream, such as a particular video game or animal. For these topics, you will notice the child talks on and on about the interest and struggles to be reciprocal in these conversations.
Symptoms of Restricted Interests in Children
- Struggles with social language: your child has a hard time knowing how to join in a conversation with peers, read body language and follow joint attention (show an interest in what the speaker is drawing attention to)
- Repeats themselves in conversation: your child shares the same information over and over again
- Has a strong vocabulary but struggles to communicate with peers: your child is strong verbally but is unable to shift topics and join a free-flowing conversation
- Only able to talk about specific topics and turns conversations into these topics of interest: your child has one or a few topics of interest and gets stuck on them. No matter what you are talking about, they will bring the conversation back to their topic of interest
- Interested in obscure or specific things: your child has an intense interest in diurnal turtles, specific dinosaurs, car washes, police, or Minecraft
- Gets stuck on a topic: your child gets stuck on odd topics such as air conditioning units, facts about buildings around the world
- Excessive knowledge on particular topics: your child knows everything about a certain war, airplanes, or trains. At first, it may seem to be quite amazing, but parents may find that they get tired of hearing about this topic constantly
Causes of Restricted Interests in Childhood
Most often, restricted or repetitive interests point to an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Autism spectrum disorder: includes challenges in social communication and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior or interests. Social communication challenges in autism often include difficulty knowing what to say, carrying on back-and-forth conversations, and social-emotional reciprocity.
Many individuals with ASD speak clearly, in full sentences, and with advanced vocabulary. They may use formal or precocious language and recall detailed information. They may try to converse with peers and adults, but they tend to struggle with reciprocity (the back-and-forth nature of social relationships) and overuse repetitive topics or statements.
As psychologists, we generally see repetitive comments about certain interests to be a hallmark sign of autism. We often hear about dinosaurs, Minecraft, or Thomas the Train. These comments seem to be ‘on repeat’ or ‘like a broken record’ or ‘on a continuous loop.’ It is a common sign of autism when the child is determined to tell people everything about a topic without taking a minute to see if people are interested.
For example, we worked with a bright and adorable child obsessed with air conditioning units. He spent all of his breaks looking out the window and identifying the types of units he could see on other roofs or buildings. Then, when asked about his siblings, he identified each by sharing a name and a favorite air conditioning brand.
Any conversation was turned back to air conditioners. While he was adorable, social challenges were becoming evident because he could not shift his focus and his topic of conversation for very long. His interest was not terribly common among kids his age and would become less accepted as he got older.
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Other causes of restricted interests: other developmental disorders or genetic disorders, as well as intellectual disabilities, could result in a pattern of more restricted interests because of brain-based differences and challenges.
Gifted kids may have some specialized interests in certain topics. This can be a little hard to discern from autism because sometimes very intelligent children experience the drive to learn everything they can about a certain subject. The key differentiator here is the child’s social skills. If you have a child who is extremely excited about a certain topic but can still drop that topic to make friends, you probably have no reason to be concerned. If, on the other hand, your child’s interest is so obsessive that the other kids are walking away from them in irritation, you will want to dig into this issue more.
What to Do About Restricted Interests in Childhood
To increase variation in topics of interest, a parent can do several things.
- First, use and model language for your child. Encourage back and forth conversation on a variety of topics.
Practice asking questions, answering questions, and sharing information back and forth. Vary activities and conversation topics at home. Try to introduce new things that are related to the topic. For example, if your child is obsessed with spiders, you can begin talking about insects and other animal species.
- Second, before a playdate, practice specifically what topics your child may want to talk about with a peer.
Help your child come up with fun ideas to share with others. Prepare your child to do, play, and talk about something other than their specific interest. Explicitly let your child know that the other children are not likely as interested in that topic as they are.
You can say, “I know you are very interested in trains, but the other kids won’t want to hear about that at this birthday party. Listen and pay attention to what other kids like and make an effort to join into those conversations.”
- Third, get your child enrolled in social activities that are low risk, like a Lego club, cooking class, robotics club, or swimming class.
When your child is struggling with social skills, you want to find activities that are structured and not as competitive. You want your child to have a chance to shine. If your kiddo is really good at building with legos, a lego club can be fun. If you can, then expand that interest to a Minecraft club or a robotics club. Practice what to talk about during these activities. These chances to socialize and practice conversation while developing interests will be helpful.
- Fourth, consider social skills groups with clinicians who are trained to help children develop conversation skills and engage in back and forth conversation as well as social interaction like playing games, talking about different topics, or working together to solve problems or puzzles.
- Fifth, Provide breaks and downtime. Give your child time to talk about his favorite interests and outlets that focus on these. Provide a space for these interests and topics. If your child really wants to tell you about every dinosaur in the book, take some time to sit and listen. Congratulate your child for sharing all of this information, while also encouraging the idea of expanding these interests into other areas.
When to Seek Help for Restricted Interests in Childhood
Restricted or repetitive interests are of most concern when they have an impact on an individual’s ability to connect socially and form meaningful social relationships with others.
Other children will talk on and on, memorizing entire factual books about a topic. It can be tricky to discern these repetitive topics from typical toddler behavior that includes repetition as a part of learning.
Clinically it is important to look at the restricted interest in the context of the child’s ability to create social interaction and reciprocity. A young child interested in dinosaurs who is rigid about what each is called, how they play, and what they eat may not be capable of connecting with others and that is a reason to be concerned.
A child who brings the dinosaur book into a parent’s lap, points to the pictures, labels each one, and makes eye contact, is acting like a typical child. It is a good sign when the child can give you a turn to comment on the dinosaur too, while smiling at you, cuddling and saying, “mama look!” Although the child is interested in dinosaurs, this topic is not interfering with social connections.
Typical vs. Concerning Restricted Interests at Various Ages
Considerations for children under 6: with young children, it is important to consider whether the repetitive interest hinders social connections and interactive play.
“It’s not unusual for toddlers and preschoolers to get pretty interested in a particular topic. The key differentiator is whether or not the child can shift away from that topic long enough to engage with others.”
School-age children: As children get older, they may have a favorite interest that stands out but does not interfere with life. For example, a child may love soccer, play every day, and sleep with the soccer ball beside the bed.
It is important to consider whether this child likes to attend birthday parties at the zoo, can play with friends in the pool, and can socially connect without the mention of soccer. If so, there is probably no cause for concern.
Conversely, the child who brings their ball everywhere and seems to ignore others while focused exclusively on their dribble may have a restricted interest impeding their ability to connect socially.
How restricted interests show up over time: It is also important to note that for some children, teenagers, or adults, these obsessions change over time.
One teen shared that he could solve any Rubik’s cube as a child. He spent all allowance on Rubik’s cubes and spent all his free time planning out his next Rubik’s solution.
As an adolescent, he liked drawing skyscrapers and spent all his free time on that activity. Finally, as a young adult, he made tiny models. He had no kitchen table in his apartment because all the surfaces were covered with tiny modeling materials. He never had anyone over because he was concerned they might mess up a model, and he explained that he “really did not have the space.”
Seek help when your child is developing a specific interest that seems to be a means of shutting out other people or self-isolating.
You have identified a significant concern when your child seems limited in terms of connecting socially with others, being flexible in the learning environment, and carrying on appropriate conversations.
Professional Resources for in Childhood
If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider symptoms in a mental health context, seek a comprehensive evaluation for autism and related concerns
- School psychologist: to test IQ, anxiety, social skills and consider the academic impact and help initiate special education supports as needed
- Speech and language pathologist: to provide language assessment and then therapy, at school therapy can happen at lunchtime or during recess for a natural social environment. May be in a group or the therapist may come into the classroom to facilitate social learning, conversation, and shared interests
- Social group: to guide your child and explicitly teach social skills. Often facilitated by a social worker, counselor, or psychologist, a group with other children with an emphasis on social and conversation skills and developing interests. Make sure your child is matched by approximate age and children have similar language skills to maximize this opportunity
- Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy: to teach your child to be more flexible in interests and conversations. This therapy often occurs in the home and is a reinforcement-based approach for teaching prosocial behaviors and appropriate social interactions
Similar Conditions to Restrictive Interests in Childhood
- Pragmatic language: children with restricted and repetitive language or topics of interest may struggle with making social connections through the use of language
- Rigidity: children who are rigid tend to be more repetitive and may easily get stuck on topics or ideas. These kids tend to like to be the boss and to direct and teach others
- Emotion regulation: children with emotional regulation issues may have difficulty recognizing, labeling or controlling their emotions, particularly in complex social settings
- Perseverating: children who are getting stuck on a topic or interest may struggle to shift to other topics
- Repetitive behavior: children with repetitive behaviors may like spinning, jumping or flapping. They may also make repetitive comments
- Stuttering: children who stutter can have language fluency challenges and that may result in a child repeating him or herself. Stuttering is different from repetitive language because the child is having difficulty expressing or articulating the words, rather than becoming obsessed with specific topics
Resources for Restricted Interests in Childhood
Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco
Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.
Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.
Mendler, Allen (2013). Teaching your students how to have a conversation.
Ozonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.
UCLA PEERS Clinic https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers
Giler, Janet Z. (2000). Socially ADDept: A manual for parents of children with ADHD and / or learning disabilities.
Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s.
Baker, Jed. (2006). Social skills picture book for high school and beyond.
Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.
Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers.
McConnell, Nancy & LoGuidice (1998). That’s Life! Social language.
Fein, Deborah (2011). “The Neuropsychology of Autism”
Children’s books on social skills
Brown, Laurie Krasny & Brown, Marc (2001). How to be a friend: A guide to making friends and keeping them (Dino life guides for families).
Meiners, Cheri. (2003). Understand and care.