What interests young autistic children? An exploratory study of object exploration and repetitive behavior

PLoS One. 2018 Dec 31;13(12):e0209251. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0209251. eCollection 2018.


Behaviors characterized as restricted and repetitive (RRBs) in autism manifest in diverse ways, from motor mannerisms to intense interests, and are diagnostically defined as interfering with functioning. A variety of early autism interventions target RRBs as preoccupying young autistic children to the detriment of exploration and learning opportunities. In an exploratory study, we developed a novel stimulating play situation including objects of potential interest to autistic children, then investigated repetitive behaviors and object explorations in 49 autistic and 43 age-matched typical young children (20-69 months). Autistic children displayed significantly increased overall frequency and duration of repetitive behaviors, as well as increased specific repetitive behaviors. However, groups did not significantly differ in frequency and duration of overall object explorations, in number of different objects explored, or in explorations of specific objects. Exploratory analyses found similar or greater exploration of literacy-related objects in autistic compared to typical children. Correlations between repetitive behaviors and object explorations (their frequency and duration) revealed positive, not negative, associations in both groups. Our findings, from a novel situation incorporating potential autistic interests, suggest that RRBs do not necessarily displace exploration and its possibilities for learning in autism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Autistic Disorder / psychology*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Exploratory Behavior*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Play and Playthings
  • Stereotyped Behavior*
  • Time Factors