The Autism Blog

Autism and Age Appropriate Interests

March 19, 2021

Welcome to the March edition of Ask Dr. Emily! We often receive questions that we want to share with all our readers. To help with this, Dr. Emily Neuhaus, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Autism Center, will share insights in a question and answer format.

This month, Dr. Emily answers a reader’s question about age-appropriate interests for their child with autism and severe intellectual disability.

My 14-year-old has autism and severe intellectual disability. He has no interest in things teens his age are interested in. He likes videos and toys that much younger kids like. My family tells me that I shouldn’t allow him to do this and should only allow him age-appropriate things. I’ve tried but he refuses. Will he always prefer kid shows and music? Is it his choice or do I keep trying? It feels wrong to force it.

Thanks for asking this! Lots of families are curious about how much to follow their child’s interests and allow them to choose their activities, versus how much to restrict activities that are either not “age-appropriate” or are part of an intensely focused interest. 

We can’t predict whether your teen will always prefer kids’ shows and music – his interests might change over time while still seeming to be a little “younger” than his actual age, since that’s been the pattern so far. But either way, you can always offer new toys, music, videos, and experiences (without restricting his current favorites) so that he can explore and come to love new things as well. It’s really your call, and I would follow your instincts and make the decision that feels right for you and your teen.

 In general, I think it’s great when children and teens have things they really enjoy – we all need interests and hobbies that bring us happiness! I see two reasons why caregivers might decide to restrict those interests or encourage something different. One reason would be if an interest is causing a problem in some way — for example, engaging with an interest that makes them feel anxious or distressed (e.g., researching severe weather, watching shows about natural disasters) or interferes with friends or school (e.g., talking about weapons, focusing on violence). The second reason would be if caregivers feel the interest is so all-consuming that it’s keeping their child or teen away from other opportunities that are important – for instance, if an interest in a TV show is so intense that it prevents him from interacting with other people, participating at school, getting physical activity, or engaging in therapies.

If any of these things are true for a child or teen, then it could be helpful to place some limits on a hobby/interest and to encourage other activities or topics that they might enjoy. I can’t say whether your teen’s interest in toys and videos aimed at younger kids are truly getting in the way, but you’ve written that it feels wrong to force him into “age-appropriate” things. In that case, it might make sense to honor your intuition despite what your family tells you.