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Restrictive and repetitive interests and activities are critical elements for a diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Circumscribed interests, which are also a widely used term for restricted interests, are among the key features of autism. Children with autism reveal their restricted interests through persistent concentration on inanimate objects like spoons or endless discussions about topics like dinosaurs as though it were the most interesting and extraordinary things in the world. Attwood (1998) notes remarkably that these interests differ in a great extent from the normal hobby many people have as this is a kind of a lone and discrete process which prevails in person's time and discussions. This means therefore, that children with autism are often unable to be separated by their obsessive things even though they are in the classroom.
The dilemma that arises in education settings is if children's restrictive interests should be included and encouraged by the educational process as argued by Preis (2007) who claims that they can be used to teach children language, significant notions and communication or they should have limited place in the learning procedure as teachers and parents often have concerns about the possible dangers and stigmatizing that RI may create (Thompson and Rodriguez, 2011).
This essay is an attempt to discuss this existing controversy and intends to explore the impact of restrictive interests on the child with autism with a particular emphasis on the benefits and limitations of them in the educational process. It is important to mention that there is some inadequacy of more recent literature on this issue and a limited focus on the negative side of the restricted interests' introduction in the curriculum. Furthermore, I aim to investigate my own concern that while RI can be useful and should be included within a wider education experience, they should not be relied upon as a sole source of learning.
Initially, I am going to present the definition of restrictive and repetitive interests and then I will briefly consider the background of RI related to old and recent researchers. Then, I will shift my interest on the positive impact of incorporating RI into educational experiences on children with ASD and the potential benefits from their inclusion in the classroom level. Subsequently, I will critically examine the possible reasons why the special interests of children with autism should be avoided or limited during the learning process arguing that too much focus on RI might restrict opportunities for a holistic educational experience and knowledge building. Finally, based on my own experiences and observations and by linking this to related literature, I will consider some ways for appropriate adjustment of restricted interests in the school curriculum as to achieve positive effects on educational progress of children with autism.
Definition and background information about restrictive interests
According to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) Autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterized by the triad of impairments in social interaction, communication and imagination (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). 'Impairments of interests, activities and behaviors' are defined as lack of flexibility, imaginative creativity and inability to adjust to changes and unpredictable situations (NIASA, 2003 cited in Frederickson and Cline, 2009 p.276).
In 1940, Leo Kanner narrated unusual behavioral features noticed in 11 children during his clinical practice (Kanner, 1943). These behaviors which he called 'autistic disturbances of affective contact' are similar to restricted and repetitive interests (RI) described by modern clinicians (Kanner, 1943, cited in Bowler, 2007 p.2). As reported by American Psychiatric Association (2000), RI include a wide range of manifestations such as repetitive motor mannerisms as jumping up and down repeatedly, hand twisting, engagement with unusual objects as spoons or cardboard boxes, vacuum cleaners, repetitive use of objects like watching a fan spin around for hours, and inflexible adherence to specific routines which are non functional as hands washing every 20 minutes. Militerni et al. (2002) recognize that these features do not always appear to the same individual and they lack stability over time while also they may have different meanings in each child. Moreover, Mancil and Pearl (2008) observe that restricted interests are often known as special interests, circumscribed interests, obsessions, compulsions and narrow interests and represent things and items which are chased with great deepness and focus by people with ASD. But perhaps a more specific terminology should be effective because this variety of terms may provoke confusion in people's perception of RI. In particular, the given name of special interests indicates a kind of supremacy in a specific domain which could prompt educators' interest in order to use them in the school field. Unlike this term, obsessions and compulsions declare intrusive and distresful ideas with potential negative manifestations which can discourage teachers' intention of incorporating them in the curriculum. In accordance with Klin et al. (2007), both these terms trigger comparisons with people with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder where obsessions are senseless and dreadful thoughts which cause emotional distress to affected individuals. On the contrary, obsessions in autism appear to be pleasant and favourite activities.
Despite the fact that RI are considered a major diagnostic feature of ASD, they do not have received enough attention as the areas of social communication and interaction. Szatmari et al. (2006) argue that empirically examinations of RI have strengthened the possibility that individual's behavioral attributes grouped in RI are heterogeneous.
However, an earlier research on circumscribed interests conducted by Baron- Cohen and Wheelwright (1999) focused on 'autistic obsessions' of 92 children with ASDs with a mean age of 11.2 years. In this study, the term 'obsessions' indicates that repetitive interests are strong but not necessarily associated with anxiety. The subjects of obsessions were categorized in 6 essential cognitive areas (folk physics, folk mathematics, folk biology, folk psychology, language, taxonomy) and in 8 other categories of everyday life (attachments, crafts, everyday life, facts, food, people, sports or games and TV/audio) and sensory phenomena (Cohen and Wheelwright, 1999). As far as the group of ASD is concerned, the majority of participants showed a preference in physics (e.g. machines, vehicles, computers, astronomy) supporting the initial assumption that obsessions are more related with a focus on how things work (folk physics) than on how people work (folk psychology).
This significant observation differentiates children with autism from their peers in the way they try to build up their world's perception. Klin et al. (2007) strengthen this argument by claiming that while typical children tend to anthropomorphize the objects around them, children with autism try to make sense of the world through a development of reasoning and concepts about their special interest. Therefore the inanimate objects of folk physics are vital to children with ASD to understand and interact with their environment.
Additionally, a recent survey conducted by Klin et al.(2007) based on nature of special interests rather than on topic indicated that RI are frequently observed in children with autism even in later school years. Also, the main way in which these interests are expressed, like verbal learning and memorization and the level of interference with activities, could predict the social and communicative adaptive behavior later in life (Klin et al. 2007).
Moreover, concerning the nature of special interests, Attwood (1998) claims that there is an obvious three-stage developmental sequence in a person with autism. During this sequence the first stage is defined by a restrictive object (a toy, a spoon, a jar). Then, it is transformed into a common topic as transport (especially trains and trucks), science, dinosaurs, astronomy, and the person develops an encyclopedic knowledge about it. The final stage, usually noticed in adolescence, might contain a more romantic and less conceptual interest which could be identified with an adolescent love and frivolity. South et al. (2005) add that circumscribed interests become more intense over the life span and also more apparent to others because the ability for communication and socializing is also increased.
Thus, the significance of the role that circumscribed interests play in the child's life is obvious. As RI are ubiquitous in their day, they constitute their activities, the mean through which they understand the world around them and the contact and interaction they establish with others.
In addition, it is worth mentioning that restricted interests are revealed by a greater percentage of young children with autism and that a significant gender difference is obvious as RI are much common for young boys than for girls (DeLoache et al. 2007).
The significance of RI for children with autism
Restrictive interests vary from child to child but the main reasons of adopting the need for a special interest may be the same. It is essential to understand RI as they determine all aspects of children's action in a great extent.
By clarifying the reasons of special interests' occurrence the impact they have on children with autism becomes evident. When a child is asked to talk about their restrictive interest they talk in a fluently way combined with satisfactory assurance as they have obtained extensive knowledge and practice on it (Attwood, 1998). Simplifying conversations in social situations special restricted interests provide self-assurance to children who face difficulties in social interaction.
A significant benefit that derives from RI is the opportunity that is given to people with Asperger's Syndrome to appear intelligent. Using exclusive terminologies is a characteristic similar to specialists as computer experts and lawyers which displays intelligence of individuals with autism (Attwood, 1998). While comprehending computer programming skills and languages may be too difficult for other children it can just be an intrinsic competence for some children with ASD (Attwood, 2003).
In addition, the provision of order and consistency is an important characteristic of special interests. This predictability creates a framework in which children with autism feel secure and it helps them to cope with the uncertainties of daily life. The incompetence and reluctance to adjust to ongoing changes and unexpected everyday facts makes the adherence on interests based on order essential. Parents of children with autism have disclosed that their adjustment to family program's changes was the most challenging case they had to handle in everyday life (South et al. 2005). While computers are characterized by logicality and consistency tend to be preferred interest of the majority of children with autism (Attwood, 1998).
Furthermore, repetitive interests represent a way of relaxation and an attempt to cope with anxious thoughts. Spiker et al. (2012) mention that individuals on the autism spectrum are more amenable to anxiety because the difficulty in understanding other people and their impaired social skills make daily social contacts seem too painful and insufferable. And as it is, RI function as shelter from the increased anxiety related to social contact children feel, and they relieve their mind from the stressors. As Attwood (1998) states, the interest becomes more profound as the stress arises.
Besides, repetitive interests are a source of entertainment, an enjoyable activity while it offers real enjoyment. This need for routines and sameness implies the personal need of ASD individuals for satisfaction (Militerni et al. 2002). Baker (2000) views also RI as a pleasurable activity and as an inherently motivating and exciting experience.
Summarizing, as Klin et al. (2005) notice, special interests seem to have a versatile role in the life of children with autism as they shape their perception of the perplexing social world and release the stress stemmed from these demanding situations.
Reasons which encourage the RI's introduction in educational process
Children with Asperger's Syndrome have a notably reduced desire to satisfy their teacher, their parents and their friends as well as they do not feel the need for competition or cooperation during their peer's activities. But at the same time, they have intense desire and stimulation when they are preoccupied with their restricted interests (Attwood, 1998). At this point we can express the assumption that if these interests could be incorporated in activities which seem to children with autism as uninteresting and not dynamic then RI might have positive results on educational process and on the amount of knowledge that these individuals can absorb. In an appropriate environment where order, safety and predictability prevail, children would be over sensitized and they would feel more comfortable and more willing to participate in the learning process.
Mancil and Pearl (2008) also, approach a positive look at RI and they view them as motivators of improvement in academic area for children with autism. Through preoccupation with special interests students with ASD can achieve tasks that were considered less preferred or difficult. Happé and Firth (2006) believe that individuals with ASD are characterized by improved performance on task requiring detail-focused processing, and expressing their 'weak and coherence' hypothesis pose a new educational strategy which is based on this superiority achieved at the cost of normal global processing. Such style of learning can produce individuals' strengths. Klin et al.(2007) further explain that these individuals' focus on isolated pieces of knowledge may make them more capable than their peers in aspects of education process which demand piecemeal and learning by heart as specific facts and rote information. In this way, educators through an appropriate learning procedure could turn this specific deficit into some advantage. This way of thinking urges teachers to pay attention to what students are really able to learn and not focus on what they cannot be taught and achieve.
Furthermore, RI could be an investment in a child's development and future career. As stated in Attwood (1998) child's intense attraction of weather phenomena and data can give them the chance for a career as meteorologist while the collection of maps and road signs could result in a source of income as taxi or bus driver.
Barriers and limitations for the RI's introduction in school place
Gillberg's Criteria for Asperger's Syndrome cited in Attwood (1998, p.92) refer to the RI as narrow interests which are defined by individual's exclusion from other activities, persistent and repeated adherence to objects or topics and more focus on rote learning than meaning. This definition makes clear the limited options these interests have on child's interaction and, as a consequence, the limited development of the child and their social skills. The engagement with objects constitutes a repetitive and monotonous play without any cue of imagination and symbolism (Jordan and Powell, 1995). This lack of creativity and spontaneity hinders the mental and cognitive development of these individuals. Without challenge and motivation the mind tends to be dormant.
Thompson and Rodriguez (2011) point out that restrictive interests may be the consequence of a specific type of reinforcing by teachers. If teachers pay attention solely on the preferred items of children and they stimulate them only with a confined array of issues they discourage children from adopting the most possible holistic knowledge. It seems to be a vicious cycle as teachers concentrate more on the constrained interests in order to achieve children's participation in classroom but on the other hand they give them restricted opportunities for more global knowledge. Extensively, when only a limited amount of materials is offered to children with ASD for encouraging interactions then the outcome would be their skill's deficiency which traps these children into their restricted interests (Thompson and Rodriguez, 2011). Klin et al (2007) supporting this argument highlight that the adherence on detached pieces of knowledge instead of whole meaning results in inadequacy of gaining a more holistic education. The children described by Kanner (1943) had good rote memory. In other words, they could recall material without obtaining a genuine understanding (Klin, 2006). As a result, this ability approaches an unproductive style of learning without giving any initiative for critical thinking. The learners cannot be stimulated but potential passive recipients of the learning process.
Moreover, Mcduffie et al. (2011) recognize a substantial difference between children with ASD who show interest in many different objects and children with ASD whose interest is constrained. They refer to the limited verbal input and other learning opportunities the latter category has as their parents and teachers do not have a wide grasp of vocabulary to describe the process of play during their interaction. Thus, enhancing children's circumscribed interests, educators may deprive them of the chance to enrich their range of vocabulary and improve their linguistic level. Mcduffie et al. (2011) claim that the deficits of restricted range of objects have significant implications on acquisition of social communication skills. The concern of negative connection of RI with future adaptation in social life is expressed by Spiker et al. (2012). When restricted interests are expressed repeatedly they intervene in people's social and adaptive domains and as Attwood (2003) notes, children with autism are unable to gain significant information from the environment making their adaptation to it harder. Adolescents of Asperger's clinical observation were absorbed into their own interest without any care about what happens around them (Bowler 2007). Not surprisingly, individual's isolation and distance from the reality is increased.
Additionally, as much of the child's free time is spent on the topic of interest they tend to engage others in one- side and inflexible conversations hindering mutual communication and mainly increasing the possibilities of child's stigmatizing by their peers especially when the special interests are distinctly unusual topics as dryers or deep-fat fryers (Klin et.al 2007). Attwood (1998) discusses the case of a child who was collecting toilet brushes once entering a house causing discomfort and worry to his family by this action. It is plausible that such an object would be rejected by the school environment and lead to ridicule by other students. Giving labels often has negative effects on self-esteem and on attempts to communicate and approach others. Moreover, stigmatizing may also stem from a restricted interest which is not developmentally and age-appropriate (Mancil and Pearl, 2008). For instance, a 13-year old child obsessed with childish toys like Thomas the Train would receive nasty comments from other children who may exclude him from the group. The chances for the threat of stigmatizing in the school environment should be reduced or even eliminated by the intervention of teacher.
By the same token, even though there is not sufficient literature on this point, it would be useful to examine the possibility of restricted interests being illegal or dangerous for children with ASD and the other students. In particular, obsessions with sharp things as knifes, unhealthy interests like cleaning bottles and cigarette packs should not have place in the school classroom in order to protect values and to ensure that all students are safe.
How to include RI properly in the educational process
The introduction or the exclusion of RI from the educational field remains an existing controversy. However, as Mancil and Pearl (2008) mention restricted interests should not be considered as a deficit area for students with ASD by teachers but as challenging task they have to negotiate successfully. The potential denial of access to obsessions may trigger children's extreme behavioral outbursts. Instead of refusing engagement with RI we could take advantage of them introducing RI in education in a more meaningful way.
Two adverse methods are suggested to help and organize educator's interference considering repetitive interests as motivators for academic engagement of children with autism (Boyd et al., 2007). These interventions provide antecedent-based and consequence-based access to children special interests and intend to moderate their duration and persistence encouraging students to be engaged with a greater variety of activities (Mancil and Pearl, 2008; Asmus et al. 2002)
Vismara and Lyons (2007) consider that circumscribed interests can act as incentives in academic tasks and lessons. According to antecedent-based intervention, educators utilize specific methods to stimulate the child to adopt proper behavior during the learning procedure. As it is argued by Boyd et al. (2007) one strategy to improve academic outcomes is the introduction of RI into suitable lessons as history, math and science. An appropriate example is the case of Zeb whose obsession was hurricanes and his math's teacher accomplished to attract his attention by developing activities related to his fascination like activities which required calculation of the wind speed and the time it would take a landfall to be made. Even though this task was enough difficult for Zeb, he did not quit his effort as he used to do with other indifferent to him activities (Mancil and Pearl, 2008). This strategy seems to be very efficient and productive while it increases children's enthusiasm toward participation and help them to sustain social interactions. However, it is noticeable that RI cannot be incorporated in every school item and every unit as there are concepts which are unlikely to be expressed sufficiently by this method.
Therefore, when the first method may be proved ineffective, The Premack principle intends to combine a less preferred activity with a liked task which includes the preoccupation with restricted interests (Mancil and Pearl 2008). This intervention based on consequence provides engagement with the restricted interests after a desirable behavior being occurred. Attwood (1998) view this strategy as a reward for children when they make efforts to concentrate and when they do not interfere to the learning process asking questions about RI for a particular period of time. Yet, Howlin (1998) points out that sometimes the unpredictable change which may occur in children's life when they are forced to participate in unpleasant activities causes many difficulties. Jordan and Powell (1995) suggest that exposed representations which conclude the steps of changes could allow to pupils with autism the prediction and preparation of the next tasks. Pictures and objects could be included to timetables in order to make them more attractive and to eliminate the threat of unpredictable. Thus, Mancil and Pearl (2008) present the functionality of the Fisrt-Then Board designed to inform students with ASD what they have to do in order to access a desirable activity. More extensively, this board will be a visual representation which depicts the forthcoming activities. This innovation in the school place will ensure gradual changes and so, any distress of the child is kept to a minimum. Similar positive results may come from the use of time clocks, schedules and diaries which would provide through a kind of helpful predictability for children with ASD in a safe environment.
Furthermore, it is vital for the teacher to consider carefully if the quality and the quantity of the engagement with RI are appropriate each time making children's education as flexible as possible.
After that, parent's powerful involvement in the educational process should not be omitted. The cooperation of teacher and parents it is an important part of this procedure during which teachers and parents meet to discuss and establish methods for school-home communication (Ministry of Education, 2007). Guidelines and information should be given to parents to obtain a more effective approach of these interests and to facilitate a proper education of the child.
The role of restricted interests is a crucial part in children's with autism life as they offer them a means to calm and rest, to have fun while also to understand and handle the difficulties of daily life. The obsessions about children's interests have impact on their mood and also their ability for academic and social success. On the other hand, the severity and the long duration of the interest in a particular topic may lead a child to experience isolation, to acquire limited or absent social skills, while also RI may hide dangers as potential stigmatizing of children with ASD from their peers and risk of their safety.
The idea of RI's potential introduction in the educational process has been an issue of considerable discourse and debate as some occasions demand the ignorance or the redirection of children away from RI and makes their inclusion in teaching field inappropriate.
However, while RI are a core feature in the self-esteem and personal stimulation of children, they should be embraced and utilized by educators in a powerful and safe way. As Klin et.al (2007) point out, RI serve many times as efficient tools which teachers can use during the learning procedure to prompt children to accomplish less preferred activities.
Nevertheless, one of the main concerns raised is that a curriculum focused on restricted interests creates a limited profile for the learner because it hampers global and critical knowledge. Therefore, a proper and substantial approach of educators should be deemed essential in order children to obtain as least as possible partial knowledge. It is pivotal to see RI as incentives for acquiring expanding knowledge and not as the only object and source of knowledge. In particular, Jordan and Powell remind us that,
'the curriculum should not just be about acquiring 'bits' of knowledge or learning compensatory functional skills- it is essential to try to produce more effective learners and individuals who can think for themselves, as far as possible' (Jordan and Powell, 1995, p.152).
Moving forward, I believe that the diversity of situations and the needs of children should be considered as every support to be efficient. At this point I would like to stress the importance of taking into account the extent and the risk, if any, of child's obsession, the educational approach which would fit better and the opportunities which are provided for the teacher and the learner in each case. What I can conclude is that a shift to individual seems to be extremely important. Even though there is a wide range of educational approaches and strategies for children with autism, the real needs of every child should be met separately. Consequently, it would be helpful to wonder what we eventually expect from a child with autism when they are too adhered to their restricted interest - do we want from them to be forced to learn and absorb as much knowledge as possible depriving many times their real obsession from them or we should let them feel happy and comfortable enjoying life in their way?