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Circumscribed interests in autism: are there sex differences?

Sallie Wallace Nowell (Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Carrboro, North Carolina, USA)
Desiree R. Jones (School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, The University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, Texas, USA)
Clare Harrop (Department of Allied Health Sciences, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Carrboro, North Carolina, USA)

Advances in Autism

ISSN: 2056-3868

Article publication date: 20 February 2019

Issue publication date: 11 June 2019




Sex differences in circumscribed interests (CI) may delay diagnosis for females with autism spectrum disorder (ASD); therefore, it is important to characterize sex differences in CI to determine if differential approaches to diagnostic assessment are warranted for females with ASD. The purpose of this paper is to examine sex differences in parent-reported quantity, content and functional impairment of children’s interests.


Parent responses to the Interests Scale were analyzed using descriptive statistics and ANOVAs to determine diagnostic (ASD vs typical development (TD)) and sex differences between four groups of children ages six to ten years: ASD males, ASD females, TD males and TD females.


Groups were comparable on the quantity of interests reported on the Interests Scale. Children with ASD demonstrated significantly more nonsocial interests and had greater functional impairment associated with their interests than TD children. A significant diagnosis×sex effect was found for the number of interests in folk psychology. Descriptively, males with ASD were more likely to have a primary interest in the traditionally male category of physics than females with ASD whose primary interest mainly fell into the categories of TV or the more traditionally female category of psychology.


These findings strengthen the results of Turner-Brown et al. (2011) by replicating their findings that children with ASD have more nonsocial interests and greater functional impairments related to their interests compared to TD children in a sample that is balanced on biological sex. However, there are distinctions between males and females with ASD in their primary interests that have implications for diagnostic assessment.



Nowell, S.W., Jones, D.R. and Harrop, C. (2019), "Circumscribed interests in autism: are there sex differences?", Advances in Autism, Vol. 5 No. 3, pp. 187-198.



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