Special Interests and Subjective Wellbeing in Autistic Adults

Oral Presentation
Thursday, May 10, 2018: 1:45 PM
Willem Burger Hal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
R. Grove1, R. A. Hoekstra2, M. Wierda3 and S. Begeer4, (1)University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, (2)Department of Psychology, King's College London, London, United Kingdom, (3)VU University, Amsterdam, Netherlands, (4)VU University Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Background: Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, activities and interests are core characteristics of autism. However, there is limited research evaluating the role of special interests in the lives of autistic adults. It has been reported that 75 to 95% of autistic individuals have special interests in particular topic areas (Turner-Brown et al., 2011). A better understanding of the role and significance of special interests is needed.

Objectives: To explore special interests topics, intensity and motivation in autistic adults. To evaluate the association between special interests and quality of life, including subjective wellbeing and domain specific life satisfaction.

Methods: Participants were recruited through the Netherlands Autism Register (NAR), a longitudinal database of autistic individuals including 687 autistic adults (338 females (Mean age = 45.3); 349 males (Mean age = 32.5)). Participants were asked whether they have one or more special interests, and, if present, to list their topics of special interest and the number of days per week and hours per day spent engaged in their special interest(s). They were also asked to rate their overall wellbeing, as well as domain-specific areas including satisfaction with health, education, workplace, leisure activities, social contact and contribution to society. The Special Interest Motivation Scale (Grove et al., 2015) was administered to evaluate motivation for engaging in special interests, including extrinsic motivational factors ‘prestige' and 'achievement' and intrinsic motivational factors linked to 'personal life values and goals', 'intrinsic interest and knowledge' and 'engagement and flow'. Data were analysed using regression and confirmatory factor analyses.

Results: Two thirds of the sample reported having a special interest, with more males reporting a special interest than females (p < 0.01). Autistic women most frequently endorsed special interests in autism, nature and art. Computers, music and autism were the most popular special interest topics for men. Most autistic adults engaged in more than one special interest, highlighting that these interests may not be as circumscribed as previously described. Both autistic men and women self-reported that their special interests had a positive impact on their life and were no obstacle to functioning. However, there was a negative correlation between time spent engaging in special interests and subjective wellbeing (p < 0.05). Intrinsic motivation factors were more frequently endorsed than extrinsic factors. Intrinsic motivation for engaging in special interests was associated with increased subjective wellbeing (p < 0.01). Intrinsic motivation factors positively predicted satisfaction with social contact and leisure (p < 0.05).

Conclusions: Engagement in special interests was associated with positive outcomes, such as increased subjective wellbeing and satisfaction across specific life domains including social contact and leisure. However, a very high intensity of engagement with special interests was negatively related to wellbeing. Intrinsic motivation to engage in special interests may play an important role in our understanding of special interests in autism and be key to both general and domain-specific wellbeing and quality of life. Combined, these findings have important implications for the role of special interests in the lives of autistic adults.