Ball Games, Bowling, and the Bachelorette: Getting Individuals with ASD Interested in New Activities

While many adults retain some nostalgia for the characters, games, and toys of their childhood, there is a natural tendency to develop new and changing interests through adolescence and adulthood. For example, a child who likes Sesame Street and juice boxes will probably outgrow those interests in favor of sports and theater, beer and wine. For those with autism, however, rigidity in interests and limited tolerance for new activities can result in a lack of age-appropriate leisure skills in adolescence and adulthood. Because leisure is seen as something “fun” and therefore often unimportant – or at least, not as important as language, social, and academic skills – parents and teachers may be reluctant to challenge children to develop new preferences and leisure activities. It’s perfectly understandable for caretakers to prioritize the efforts and energy put into teaching new skills towards those that are most functional, and to allow play and leisure to be more child-directed.
There are two critical concerns with a failure to develop age- and socially-appropriate leisure skills, however. One major problem is that anyone who doesn’t have something enjoyable to do when the demands of everyday life are lifted may wind up engaging in less than acceptable ways of keeping busy. What they may wind up doing instead is often classified as inappropriate attention-seeking behavior towards peers and staff members, or even destructive or self-injurious behavior. A functional assessment of the concerning behavior often points to the simple problem of boredom, and teaching and encouraging new leisure skills is the best solution.
The second big problem is that socially, the world that we live in is frankly intolerant of adults who exhibit interests in and preferences for activities that are considered childish. There are some acceptable versions of these interests for adults; for example, there are plenty of grown-ups who enjoy creating elaborate model train scenes and who have the financial resources to do so. The individual with autism who loves Thomas the Train may be successfully able to transition that interest into the grown-up version of train hobbies, but will probably be most socially accepted if Thomas is not part of that adult hobby.
So what should be done about the problem of age-, culturally-, or socially-inappropriate interests? Is it even possible to build a new interest in someone who is resistant to unfamiliar activities? The answer is yes. Here are some suggestions to guide the process.
1. It’s always easier to teach what TO DO rather than what NOT to do. Rather than attempting to eliminate or discourage inappropriate interests, put more effort into encouraging appropriate interests to replace the problematic ones.
2. Consistent, regular exposure to new activities is the best way to encourage interest in those activities. “Try it, you might like it,” should be the mantra. Where some people have a natural curiosity and desire to seek out new experiences, people with autism often actively avoid them, so such exposure has to be programmed and guided.
3. If the individual is really resistant to trying something new, consider pairing the new activity with a preferred activity or item. Maybe watching a few minutes of a baseball game on television would be more appealing if favorite snacks were available, or doing some paint-by-numbers would be more likely if a preferred staff member was also doing it.
4. If possible, start exposure and pairing EARLY. Although it’s definitely possible to foster new interests in adults with autism, it’s much easier to establish a pattern of trying new things in a younger child. I strongly advocate having exposure to new activities as a part of regular programming along with language, academics, and social skills training, from the earliest possible point. You want trying something new to be a strong skill set.
5. Don’t get discouraged, and don’t force interests that aren’t being enjoyed. This is a tricky balance. It can take several exposures to get someone to start to enjoy something new, so don’t give up too quickly, but at the same time, know when to say when. If a good effort has been made to try something but the person just doesn’t seek it out after several opportunities, move on to another interest.
6. Keep an eye out for new possibilities, and build on existing interests. If someone genuinely enjoys drawing with markers, he or she may be open to painting, sculpting, or photography. If someone enjoys photography, maybe scrapbooking is a natural extension. An individual who likes to eat may be really motivated to learn to cook, and to enjoy cooking as an activity.
7. Look for ways to generalize existing interests. For example, an individual who enjoys looking up facts online can learn to enjoy researching trips or other leisure activities. Someone who likes to build with Legos might like to learn to put together model car kits or refinish furniture.
Age-appropriate leisure skills are important for many reasons, not the least of which is so that people don’t get bored and engage in problematic behavior when they have nothing else to do. Most adults have something to look forward to when their work is done, and those with autism deserve the same. Children who develop the skill of learning to try and like new things will definitely be a step ahead in terms of having good reinforcers and pleasurable experiences to look forward to throughout their lives!


About The Author

Dana Reinecke is a doctoral level Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D) and a New York State Licensed Behavior Analyst (LBA).   Dana is an Assistant Professor and Department Chair of the Department of Special Education and Literacy at Long Island University Post.  Dana provides training and consultation to school districts, private schools, agencies, and families for individuals with disabilities.  She has presented original research and workshops on the treatment of autism and applications of ABA at regional, national, and international conferences.  She has published her research in peer-reviewed journals, written chapters in published books, and co-edited books on ABA and autism.  Current areas of research include use of technology to support students with and without disabilities, self-management training of college students with disabilities, and online teaching strategies for effective college and graduate education.  Dana is actively involved in the New York State Association for Behavior Analysis (NYSABA), and is currently serving as President (2017-2018).

“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

Little Boy and TrainInherent 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. Continue reading