Measuring Commitment to Special Interests in Adults on the Autism Spectrum

Roth, I. A.; Roelfsema, M. T. and Hoekstra, R. A. (2015). Measuring Commitment to Special Interests in Adults on the Autism Spectrum. In: International Society for Autism Research, 13-16 May 2015, Salt Lake City, UT, USA.



Background: Special or ‘circumscribed’ interests play a prominent role in the behavioural phenotype of autism in both children and adults. Yet how and why individuals with autism engage with their special interests and the impact of these interests on well-being are poorly understood. Parental reports tend to emphasise troublesome and functionally impairing features and few studies have directly explored special interests in adults. This study addressed these gaps using an online self-report questionnaire for a large sample of male and female adults with autism and neurotypical controls.
Objectives: i) To compare how adults on the autism spectrum and neurotypical controls engage with special interests in terms of intensity of commitment and reasons for attraction ii) to explore whether level of commitment to a special interest is related to well-being.

Methods: Participants were 175 adults with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis (95 males; 80 females) and 330 adult neurotypical (NT) controls (237 males; 93 females). Participants completed the survey via the online questionnaire interface of The Open University’s Biomedical Online Research Network (BORN). The questionnaire included item ratings on a specially developed Special Interest Commitment Scale (SICS), and on questions exploring participants’ reasons for attraction to their chosen interest. Participants also completed Cantril’s Happiness Ladder (1965), the Satisfaction With Life Scale (Dieder et al., 1985) and the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1965).

Results: The Special Interest Commitment Scale (SICS) comprised 8 items with good internal consistency (Cronbach’s Alpha=.84). On the SICS, ASD participants showed significantly more intense commitment to their interest than controls (p<.0001). For instance, 61.1% of ASD participants vs. 31.6% of controls indicated that their special interest is the most important thing in their life (p <.0001). Participants with ASD were significantly more likely than controls to report that their interest prevented interactions with other people (64.2% vs. 28.0% p<.0001), and that others said they talked too much about it (56.2% vs.23.6% p<.0001). On the ‘reasons for attraction’ measure, ASD participants placed significantly less value than controls on meeting others through their interest and on encountering the unexpected, and were significantly more likely to value scope within their interest for predictability and order, being in control, and spending time alone (all p <.0001). For ASD participants SICS scores were unrelated to happiness, life satisfaction and self-esteem measures, while for controls there were modest negative correlations ( happiness: r= -.18, p=.004; life satisfaction: r= -.16, p=.01; self-esteem: r= -.13, p=.04).

Conclusions: Participants with ASD showed more intense commitment to their interests than controls. According to some previous research, intense special interests in autism are functionally impairing, as they impede meeting new people and engaging with new experiences. However, in this study ASD participants were positively attracted by the regularity and ‘non-social’ qualities of their interests such as predictability, order, control and spending time alone. Correspondingly, for the ASD group only, special interest commitment was not negatively related to happiness, life satisfaction and self-esteem, confirming that for this group, intense, somewhat solitary interests can be benign if not life-enhancing.

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