“Expanding Interests in Children with Autism” by Tanya Baynham, MS, BCBA

This month’s featured article from ASAT is by Program Director of the Kansas City Autism Training Center Tanya Baynham, MS, BCBA, on a variety of research-based strategies to help you expand interests in children with autism. To learn more about ASAT, please visit their website at www.asatonline.org. You can also sign up for ASAT’s free newsletter, Science in Autism Treatment, and like them on Facebook!

My child is doing well with many of his ABA programs, even the ones that focus on the development of play skills. Unfortunately, he doesn’t play with most of the toys that we give him, and he has worked for the same five things since our program began a year ago (marshmallow peeps, Thomas trains, tickles, Wiggles songs, and raisins). What can I do to expand his interests and maybe even get those interests to function as reinforcers for teaching targets?

Answered by Tanya Baynham, MS, BCBA
Program Director, Kansas City Autism Training Center

Inherent to a diagnosis of autism is the observation that the child will engage in restricted or repetitive behavior and may also display restricted interests. Expanding those interests, specifically in the areas of toy use and play, is an important programming goal as it can result in a number of positive effects. First, rates of socially appropriate behaviors may increase while rates of inappropriate behaviors may decrease. For example, engaging a child in looking at a book may decrease stereotypic behaviors or passivity (Nuzzolo-Gomez, Leonard, Ortiz, Rivera, & Greer, 2002). Second, interest expansion can lead to new social opportunities for children and promote greater flexibility when bringing them to new environments. For example, a child with a new preference for coloring may be more successful in a restaurant because he will sit and color the menu, or he can attend Sunday school because he will color a picture when directed. Third, the addition of new reinforcers in ABA programs may help prevent satiation or allow you to allocate more highly preferred items for difficult teaching targets and less preferred items for easier targets.

Stocco, Thompson, and Rodriguez (2011) showed that teachers are likely to present fewer options to individuals with restricted interests and will allow them to engage longer with items associated with those restricted interests. The authors suggest one possible reason for this is that teachers might be sensitive to the fact that negative behaviors (e.g., whining, pushing the toy away) are more likely to accompany the presentation of a toy that is not associated with the child’s restricted interest. In general, this sensitivity to the child’s behavior is important in maintaining low rates of problem behavior, but it can potentially limit access to novel experiences or activities. We need to systematically program effective ways to expand a child’s interests without evoking tears and other negative behavior.

Most importantly we, as parents and intervention providers, must make reinforcer expansion a teaching focus and use data to determine whether our procedures are producing change. One recommendation is to first track the number of different toys and activities with which your child engages to identify current patterns. Then, measure the effects of attempts at reinforcer expansion on your child’s behavior. Ala’i-Rosales, Zeug, and Baynham (2008) suggested a variety of measures that can be helpful in determining whether your child’s world is expanding. These measures include the number of toys presented, number of different toys approached/contacted across a week (in and/or out of session), engagement duration with new toys, and affect while engaging with toys. It is sometimes helpful to track changes across specific categories (e.g., social activities, food, social toys, sensory toys, etc.). If, for example, your child only watches Thomas videos, you may narrow the focus to the category “videos” in order to track expansion of interests to different types of videos. Keeping in mind the previous point about a teacher’s role in expanding a child’s interests, you may also want to set goals to ensure changes in adult behavior such as, “Present three new items each day.”

Once data are being taken, it is important to implement procedures likely to expand your child’s interests. One way to expand toy play is to present, or pair, a preferred item with the item you want to become more preferred (Ardoin, Martens, Wolfe, Hilt and Rosenthal, 2004). Here are a few examples:

  • Playing a game: Use peeps as the game pieces in a game you want your child to enjoy, embedding opportunities to eat the peeps at different points during the game.
  • Trying a new activity: Sing a favorite song as you help your child up the ladder of an unfamiliar slide on the playground.
  • Reading a book: Tickle your child before turning each page while reading a book.

A second way to expand interests is to think about why your child might engage in those restricted interests. If he likes Thomas because of the happy face, put Thomas stickers on a ring stacker. If he likes Thomas because of the wheels, present other vehicles with wheels. If your child likes peeps because they blow up in the microwave, put Mentos in a cola bottle or use baking soda to make a volcano. If he likes peeps because they are squishy, use marshmallows in art projects or in a match-by-feel game.

A third way to expand interests is described by Singer-Dudek, Oblak, and Greer (2011), who demonstrated that some children will engage more with a novel toy after simply observing another child receiving reinforcers after playing with it. To apply these findings to your child, give Thomas trains, if they are used as a reinforcer, to a sibling who just played with novel items such as play dough or shaving cream.

The methods described may only be effective in producing functional play if your child has the skills necessary to engage appropriately with the toys. If your child is not spontaneously playing with toys after being taught how to engage with them, consider the following potential reasons:

  • the play skill may not have been taught to a natural criterion where the child has “mastered” it independently,
  • the program may include a verbal instruction required for the child to begin playing,
  • the teacher may place the toy in front of the child or present it in a visually different way from how it would be naturally displayed (e.g., on a shelf instead of on a table or assembled instead of disassembled).

Aspects of the context like the location of the toy, adult presence and proximity, and whether a toy is assembled or disassembled can essentially determine whether or not your child will play with that particular toy. If spontaneous play is the goal, consider fading any verbal instructions, adding teaching steps until the child is selecting the toy its natural place in the home, and teaching the child how to initiate the play sequence without any teacher interaction.

Here are some final strategies to consider when expanding your child’s interests:

  • Prioritize toy rotation. Depending upon the number and diversity of toys with which your child engages, you may rotate toys on an hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Removing a high preference, commonly used, toy from the rotation can result in increased approach and engagement with other toys.
  • Provide the toy you want to become reinforcing for “free” in addition to the toy your child chooses during a reinforcement break.
  • You may have to present a new toy many times before a child begins to show real interest. Provide known reinforcers for accepting the presentation of, and engagement with, a new toy.
  • Teach skills that lead to independent initiations of activities (e.g., scanning and selecting among large sets or on shelves, requesting items out of view, requesting items that are presented on television commercials).
  • Teach the skill of making forced choices (presenting a few options and asking the child to choose) and then offer forced choices of items that you would like your child to explore. Associating these items with choice may motivate your child to engage with them.
  • If your child does not initiate play, make sure component skills of games are mastered before teaching the play activity. For example, teach “Ned’s Head” or “Memory” once your child can match. Introduce “Hi Ho Cheerio” only after your child can count objects.


Ala’i-Rosales, S., Zeug, N. M., & Baynham, T. (2008). The development of interests in children with autism: A method to establish baselines for analyses and evaluation. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 14, 3-16.

Ardoin, S. C., Martens, B. K., Wolfe, L.A., Hilt, A. M., & Rosenthal, B. D. (2004). A method for conditioning reinforcer preferences in students with moderate mental retardation. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 16, 34-55.

Nuzzolo-Gomez, R., Leonard, M., Ortiz, E., Rivera, C.,& Greer, D. (2002). Teaching children with autism to prefer books or toys over stereotypy or passivity. Journal of Positive Behavioral Interventions, 4, 80–87.

Singer-Dudek, J., Oblak, M., & Greer, R. D. (2011). Establishing books as conditioned reinforcers for preschool students as a result of observational intervention. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44, 421-434.

Stocco, C. S., Thompson, R. H., & Rodriguez, N. M. (2011). Restricted interests and teacher presentation of items, Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44, 499-512.

About the Author

Tanya Baynham, MS, BCBA is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Tanya has 20 years of clinical experience in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis. She serves as Program Director for the Kansas City Autism Training Center and Astra Day School. The center delivers 1:1 intervention to children with autism embedded within a rigorous, behavior analytic preschool for children without diagnoses. A mission of the center is to produce maximum positive change in all learners while prioritizing child and staff happiness within an ethical learning environment.