Dinosaurs, Star Wars, train schedules, Disney princesses, maps, LEGO—subjects such as these can become all-consuming passions for children on the autism spectrum. What therapists and educators often call “circumscribed” or “restricted” interests (or, more generously, “special” interests) make up a characteristic symptom of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The current edition of psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes them as “highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus.” Roughly 90 percent of high-functioning kids with ASD display at least one such interest during their elementary school years, according to a 2007 survey conducted at the Yale University Child Study Center, one of the few studies to have examined the topic.
For a family with an affected child, this kind of narrow preoccupation can be tedious and exhausting. Imagine a kid who will talk about nothing but the exits on the New Jersey Turnpike or the Captain Underpants book series. (Both actual examples.)
Therapists and educators have traditionally tried to suppress or modulate a child’s special interest, or use it as a tool for behavior modification: Keep your hands still and stop flapping, and you will get to watch a Star Wars clip; complete your homework or no Harry Potter. But what if these obsessions themselves can be turned into pathways to growth? What if these intellectual cul-de-sacs can open up worlds? That is the idea explored in the film Life, Animated, a contender for the Academy Award for Best Documentary this Sunday night.