Age-Inappropriate Interests and Behaviors in Autism

Causes, Impacts, and How to Help Your Child

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People with autism, at every age and severity level, tend to be “young for their age.” In other words, they have at least some interests, behaviors, and emotional responses that would be expected in a much younger person.

Often these differences are mild enough or unobtrusive enough that they do not cause problems. Sometimes, however, age-inappropriate interests and behaviors can interfere with the person’s ability to fulfill their goals. When that happens, it’s possible to take constructive action.

There are a number of interrelated reasons why people with autism are often intrigued by “childish” activities, TV shows, and behaviors—even as teenagers and adults. These stem from and include aspects of autism itself, but may also include socialization, education, and therapies that are commonly experienced by children with autism.

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How Autism Can Lead to Age-Inappropriate Interests and Behaviors

Some of the core symptoms of autism include:

  • Rigidity (lack of willingness to change) and a need for routine
  • Lack of imitative skills or awareness of others’ expectations
  • Perseverative (repetitive) behaviors
  • Special interests or “passions”
  • Emotional immaturity

All of these symptoms can, in many instances, lead to age-inappropriate interests and behaviors. The good news is that there are many ways to help your child develop more sophisticated interests and behaviors without asking them to give up their passions.

Rigidity and Need for Routine

Once a child with autism has learned and mastered a particular routine, it can be very difficult for them to change it. However, in the United States, children are expected to master multiple routines at once: a home routine, a school routine, and a summer routine. And these routines change constantly.

The kindergarten routine may include learning centers and nap time, while the first-grade routine may include lining up at the cafeteria and sitting still in rows.

For a child with autism, the change can be overwhelming, especially if it comes without warning. The outcome can be age-inappropriate behaviors or interests that come from well-learned and well-loved routines.

Lack of Imitative Skills or Awareness of Expectations

Typical children learn, to a large degree, through imitation of adults and peers. They are also keenly aware of and responsive to others’ expectations. As a result, they learn what is expected and, by and large, present expected behaviors and interests.

But children with autism, with some exceptions, do not learn through imitation. Instead, they tend to learn through direct instruction. In other words, they don’t look around, observe their peers, and try to “fit in,” though they may be able to learn expected behaviors if they are taught.

That means a child with autism may be completely unaware that their peers have moved past “Curious George” and are on to TikTok. What’s more, if they are told that this is the case, they may not care very much.

Perseverative Behaviors

The terms “perseverative behaviors” or “stereotypic behaviors” sometimes refer to stimming behaviors—self-calming movements such as rocking or pacing, mumbling, etc. They can also refer to well-established behavioral routines that can quickly become age-inappropriate.

It may take longer for an autistic child to, for example, end thumb-sucking, complete toilet learning, stop carrying around stuffed animals, stop crying when frustrated, etc. They have a need to do the same thing, in the same way, over and over again. Instead of feeling excited about new toys or interests, they may perseverate on the tried and true.

Special Interests or Passions

People with autism may become fascinated by a particular area of interest and find it almost impossible to focus on anything else. These interests may change over time, but often people on the spectrum remain fascinated by the same things over time—even when the object of their fascination is intended for very young children.

This is one reason why older children with autism may still be dedicated to Thomas the Tank Engine or Sesame Street long after their same-age peers have moved on to more sophisticated interests.

Emotional Immaturity

There is a myth that people with autism are emotionless. In fact, most people with autism have very strong emotions.

Often, autism makes it hard to manage feelings of frustration, fear, or anxiety; the outcome can be emotional outbursts or “meltdowns.”

Meltdowns are relatively common even among people with very high-functioning autism. They can be the result of sensory overload, anxiety (which is common among people with autism), or frustration.

It is not unusual for a teen with autism who is otherwise bright and capable to suddenly explode in anger or burst into tears, very much like a small child.

Causes Related to Socialization, Education, and Therapies

Many children with autism are educated in small, special-needs settings, protected from potentially negative interactions, and provided with therapies that support the idea that every positive behavior will be rewarded.

In many cases, the bar is lowered for children with autism. They may not be taught the same skills as their peers, and they may be included in activities that require little or no competition.

These experiences have the potential to keep children with autism from learning the social, physical, and emotional skills they need to engage appropriately with their typical peers.

Children with autism may be offered opportunities to engage in sports without fully understanding how a game is played and without demonstrating the skills required to play the game correctly. They may be included in school plays without being asked to learn lines or manage their own costume changes.

They may be part of “buddy” programs that suggest a level of mutual friendship that doesn’t really exist. These experiences, while pleasant, make it easy for a child with autism to avoid the hard work of skill-building that is part of their typical peers’ lives.

Applied behavioral analysis (ABA), the “gold standard” of autism therapy, is based on the concept of “reinforcement,” or rewards, for appropriate behaviors or actions. While children do learn a wide range of skills through ABA, some get “stuck” in the expectation that every positive action deserves a prize.

Play therapies such as Floortime and Relationship Developmental Intervention (RDI) help build skills by engaging with children in activities that interest the child.

If a child is engaged with age-inappropriate activities, therefore, the therapist or coach will engage with the child. This sets up an assumption that the activity is appropriate in any setting.

Why Age-Appropriate Interests and Behaviors Matter

While many adults are interested in and participate in activities that reflect their childhood interests, they do so with an adult perspective and sensibility. The same is true of older children and teens, who may remember their childhood passions fondly but are unlikely to take The Wiggles seriously as a musical group.

When children, teens, and adults with autism think and behave like young children, they are likely to distance themselves from their same-age peers, creating a less-than-equal relationship and, in some cases, alienating potential friends.

Perservation on childlike interests, especially when combined with childlike behaviors, can also have a negative impact on:

  • Work relationships and opportunities
  • Relationships within the community
  • Potential romantic relationships

Unexpected behaviors and interests can also be offputting. An unexpectedly passionate interest in a video game, a meltdown set off by frustration, a childlike approach to romance, or even an unexpectedly immature response to criticism at work can set off warning bells.

In the long run, age-inappropriate behavior can undermine a person with autism even if that person is intelligent, articulate, hard working, and good natured.

Increasing Age-Appropriate Interests and Behaviors

We are in a time when “nerd culture” is cool, typical teens and adults dress up as superheroes and go to conventions (cons), and entire cultural subgroups are formed online and in person around interests such as children’s TV shows, video games, Disney trivia, and other autism-friendly subject areas.

That means some individuals with autism can find like-minded friends who are just as passionate as they are. The definition of age-inappropriate has changed, and that’s a good thing for teens and adults with autism.

It is, however, important for teens and adults with autism to understand that teen and adult interests are expressed differently from childhood interests. Here are some tips for helping your child move toward more sophisticated, adult interests and behaviors:

  • Help your child explore their passions in more sophisticated ways. If they are interested in Thomas the Tank Engine, they may enjoy train rides or train museums. If they are Disney movie fans, they may enjoy exploring Disney collectibles.
  • Help your child build strong skills in their areas of interest. Rather than accepting any level of effort as “good enough,” help your child build their skills during their childhood years. If they are interested in sports, they may need extra coaching. If they love drawing, art classes may be appropriate.
  • Introduce new opportunities that are similar to those they are passionate about. If your child watches the same TV shows and movies repeatedly, expose them to more sophisticated shows with similar themes. If they like collecting toy cars, they may be interested in antique toys.
  • Find authentic outlets where your child’s interests and knowledge will be appreciated. If they know exactly how to dress as a beloved Marvel character, they may be a real hit in cosplay at a regional con.
  • Raise the bar for unexpected behavior. Most people with autism can increase their self-knowledge and self-discipline with help and support. Many available tools can help your child find and use techniques to avoid difficult situations, manage frustration, and handle conflict. These skills can be invaluable as your child develops into adulthood.
  • Take it slowly. Even one new interest or skill is an important step in the right direction.

Summary

People with autism may have age-inappropriate interests and behaviors. This may be due to aspects of the condition itself or may develop due to the influence of socialization, education, or therapies.

Age-inappropriate interests and behaviors can have a negative impact on many aspects of life. Parents can help a child with autism channel their passions and interests to those more appropriate for their age.

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