Background: The distinction between autism and Asperger syndrome has been abandoned in the DSM-5. However, this clinical categorization largely overlaps with the presence or absence of a speech onset delay which is associated with clinical, cognitive, and neural differences. It is unknown whether these different speech development pathways and associated cognitive differences are involved in the heterogeneity of the restricted interests that characterize autistic adults.
Method: This study tested the hypothesis that speech onset delay, or conversely, early mastery of speech, orients the nature and verbal reporting of adult autistic interests. The occurrence of a priori defined descriptors for perceptual and thematic dimensions were determined, as well as the perceived function and benefits, in the response of autistic people to a semi-structured interview on their intense interests. The number of words, grammatical categories, and proportion of perceptual/thematic descriptors were computed and compared between groups by variance analyses. The participants comprised 40 autistic adults grouped according to the presence (N = 20) or absence (N = 20) of speech onset delay, as well as 20 non-autistic adults, also with intense interests, matched for non-verbal intelligence using Raven's Progressive Matrices.
Results: The overall nature, function, and benefit of intense interests were similar across autistic subgroups, and between autistic and non-autistic groups. However, autistic participants with a history of speech onset delay used more perceptual than thematic descriptors when talking about their interests, whereas the opposite was true for autistic individuals without speech onset delay. This finding remained significant after controlling for linguistic differences observed between the two groups.
Conclusions: Verbal reporting, but not the nature or positive function, of intense interests differed between adult autistic individuals depending on their speech acquisition history: oral reporting of intense interests was characterized by perceptual dominance for autistic individuals with delayed speech onset and thematic dominance for those without. This may contribute to the heterogeneous presentation observed among autistic adults of normal intelligence.
Keywords: Asperger syndrome; Autism spectrum; Heterogeneity; Restricted interests; Speech onset delay.