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Asperger's Syndrome: Circumscribed Interests and Rigidity

Interactive Autism Network at Kennedy Krieger Institute
Date Last Revised: 
December 9, 2013
Date Published: 
April 2, 2007

People with Asperger's syndrome are known for having one, or several, intensely focused interests. These "special topics" can give the person with Asperger's a great deal of enjoyment and satisfaction. Unfortunately, they can sometimes be so all-consuming that they interfere with everything else, including learning and reciprocal conversation.1

People with Asperger's seem drawn or driven to their special interests, zoning out on them in the middle of school, spending hours on them during free time, and droning on about them to anybody who will even halfway pretend to listen. Topics vary widely, from computers to deep fat fryers, from astronomy to sports teams, from toilet brushes to tropical fish. Even if the topic itself is not that unusual – such as Thomas the Tank Engine or Pokemon for the younger set -- the intensity of focus, and how one interacts around that focus, is. Tony Attwood tells of a family who, noting their son’s obsession with rugby statistics, signed him up for a local junior team in hopes he could interact with the other kids around his interest:

“As the whistle blew to start his first game, he immediately began a loud and continuous commentary on the action as if he were a sports commentator. When the ball was eventually passed to him, he threw it away in disgust.”  2

The context of the rugby match had no meaning for the boy at all. He wanted to focus on his topic in the accustomed way; anything interfering with that was just a frustration.

The DSM-IV, the old American psychiatric diagnosis manual, emphasized that it is those with autism who tended to have rituals and “marked distress in change,"3 suggesting that this may not be so much the case for people with Asperger's. However, many have noted that individuals with Asperger's can also have rituals and be very dependent upon routine, becoming upset when there are unanticipated changes.4 In fact, some have linked the intense need for routine and predictability to the anxiety experienced by individuals with Asperger's in the face of a world that is anything but predictable.5 In 2013, American psychiatrists decided to combine autism and Asperger's into a single diagnosis of "autism spectrum disorder," emphasizing the common traits experienced by people along the spectrum.

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References

  1. South, M., Ozonoff, S., & McMahon, W.M. (2005). Repetitive behavior profiles in Asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 35(2), 145-158.  Abstract
  2. Attwood, T. (1998). Asperger’s syndrome: A guide for parents and professionals. London and Philadephia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. (pg. 90)
  3. American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., rev.). Washington DC: Author. (Pg. 82)
  4. Attwood, T. (1998). Asperger’s syndrome: A guide for parents and professionals. London and Philadephia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. (pg. 89-102)
  5. Klin, A., McPartland, J., & Volkmar, F. (2005). Asperger syndrome. In F. Volkmar et al. (Eds.), Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders (pp.88-125). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. (pg.100)
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