Investigating the Association Between Restricted Interests and Language Abilities As Groundwork for Novel Intervention Development

Friday, May 12, 2017: 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
K. Birtwell and L. Nowinski, Massachusetts General Hospital - Lurie Center, Lexington, MA
Background:  Evidence of restricted interests is a hallmark symptom of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Current estimates suggest that up to 95% of children with ASD have at least one restricted or circumscribed interest, yet our ability to target or reduce these highly restricted interests and their associated behaviors with traditional pharmacologic and therapeutic/behavioral interventions has been limited to date (Boyd, McDonough, & Bodfish, 2012; Poustka et al., 2014; Turner-Brown, Lam, Holzclaw, Dichter & Bodfish, 2011). Moreover, it may not be clinically beneficial or practically necessary to do so. Rather, clinicians and researchers are increasingly utilizingcircumscribed interests in the context of various interventions to bolster motivation, rapport, and to ultimately enhance treatment outcomes (e.g., Kryzak & Jones, 2015). Given that ASD is a highly heterogeneous condition, it will be important to identify which patients will be most responsive to such interventions. While the presence of restricted interests in ASD has been associated with higher cognitive functioning (Bishop, Richler & Lord, 2006), few studies have investigated the relationship between specific interests and language skills in this population.

Objectives:  The purpose of the present study is to identify specific phenotypic and language traits within individuals with ASD that may make them well-suited for interventions that are designed to utilize circumscribed interests, rather than reduce or eliminate them. Specifically, this investigation seeks to clarify the relationship between language level and intensity of restricted interest in school-aged children with ASD.

Methods:  Participants will include approximately thirty children (ages 6 years, 0 months to 10 years, 11 months; including females) with a diagnosis of ASD recruited from a multidisciplinary autism clinic. Each child will be administered various language tasks, including verbal subscales from the Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence Scale-2nd Edition (WASI-II; Wechsler, 2011), the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, 4th Edition (PPVT-4; Dunn & Dunn, 2007) and the Pragmatics Profile of the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals, 5thEdition (CELF-5; Wiig, Semel, & Secord, 2013). In addition, parent reporters will be asked to complete the Interest Scale (Bodfish, 2014) and the Affinities Scale, an original measure adapted from the Interests Scale to specifically assess the level of interest in contemporary movies and characters that could be utilized in treatment technologies.

Results:  Data collection is ongoing. Results will include sample descriptive data, means and standard deviations of the proposed outcome measures, and Pearson correlation statistics for restricted interest levels and various language abilities.

Conclusions:  Results from the present study will help to clarify our understanding of the direction and strength of the relationship between restricted interests and language skills in school-aged children with ASD. These findings will significantly contribute to our limited knowledge of restricted or circumscribed interests and will directly inform subsequent intervention design and implementation. Results will contribute to a small, but emerging body of evidence that a new approach to addressing restricted interests in therapeutic interventions for some individuals with ASD may be warranted.