Expanding Interest

My child is doing well with many of his ABA programs, even the ones that focus on play. Unfortunately, he doesn’t play with most of the toys that we give him, and he has worked for the same five things since our program began a year ago (marshmallow peeps, Thomas trains, tickles, Wiggles songs, and raisins). What can I do to expand his interests and maybe even get those interests to function as reinforcers for teaching targets?

Answered by Tanya Baynham, MS, BCBA
Program Director, Kansas City Autism Training Center

Inherent in a diagnosis of autism is the fact that the child will engage in restricted or repetitive behavior and may also have restricted interests. Expanding those interests, specifically in the areas of toys and play, is an important programming goal as it can result in a number of positive effects. First, rates of socially appropriate behaviors may increase while rates of inappropriate behaviors may decrease. For example, engaging a child in looking at a book may decrease his stereotypic behaviors or passivity (Nuzzolo-Gomez, Leonard, Ortiz, Rivera, & Greer, 2002). Second, interest expansion can lead to new social opportunities for children and enable greater flexibility when bringing them to new environments. For example, a child with a new preference for coloring may be taken to a restaurant because he will sit and color the menu, or he can attend Sunday school because he will color a picture when directed. Third, the addition of new reinforcers in ABA programs may help prevent satiation or allow you to allocate more highly preferred items for difficult teaching targets and less preferred items for easier targets.

Stocco, Thompson, and Rodriguez (2011) showed that teachers are likely to present fewer options to individuals with restricted interests and allow them to engage longer with items associated with those restricted interests. The authors suggest one possible reason for this is that teachers might be sensitive to the negative behaviors (e.g., whining, pushing the toy away) that can accompany the presentation of a new toy. The results of this study prompt us to be aware of our own role in potentially limiting a child’s access to novel experiences or activities and to find effective ways of expanding a child’s interests without evoking tears and other negative behavior.

Most importantly, make reinforcer expansion a teaching focus and take data. First, track the number of different toys and activities with which your child engages to identify your child’s current patterns. Then, measure the effects of your attempts at reinforcer expansion on your child’s behavior. Ala’i-Rosales, Zeug, and Baynham (2008) suggested a variety of measures that can be helpful in determining whether your child’s world is expanding. These include: number of toys presented, number of different toys approached/contacted across a week (in and/or out of session), engagement duration with new toys, and affect while engaging with toys. It is sometimes helpful to track changes across specific categories (e.g., social activities, food, social toys, sensory toys, etc). If your child only watches Thomas videos, you may narrow the focus to the category “videos” in order to track expansion of interests to different types of videos. Keeping in mind the previous point about a teacher’s role in expanding a child’s interests, you may also want to set goals to ensure changes in teacher behavior such as, “Present three new items each day.”

Once data are being taken, it is important to implement procedures likely to expand your child’s interests. One way to expand toy play is to present, or pair, a preferred item with the item you want to become more preferred (Ardoin, Martens, Wolfe, Hilt and Rosenthal, 2004). Here are a few examples:

  • Use peeps as the game pieces in a game you want your child to enjoy, then eat the peeps at different points during the game
  • Sing a favorite song as you help your child up the ladder of an unfamiliar slide on the playground
  • Tickle your child before turning each page while reading a book

A second way to expand interests is to think about why your child engages in those restricted interests. If he likes Thomas because of the happy face, put Thomas stickers on a ringstacker. If he likes Thomas because of the wheels, present other vehicles with wheels. If your child likes peeps because they blow up in the microwave, put Mentos in a cola bottle or use baking soda to make a volcano. If he likes peeps because they are squishy, use marshmallows in art projects or in a match-by-feel game. A third way to expand interests is described by Singer-Dudek, Oblak, and Greer (2011), who demonstrated that some children will engage more with a novel toy after simply observing another child receiving reinforcers after playing with it. To apply these findings to your child, the teacher could give Thomas trains to a sibling who just played with novel items such as play dough or shaving cream.

The methods described may only be effective in producing functional play if your child has the skills necessary to engage appropriately with the toys. If your child is not spontaneously playing with toys with which he has been taught to engage, consider the following potential reasons: the play skill may not have been taught to a natural criterion where the child has “mastered” it independently, the program may include a verbal instruction required for the child to begin playing, the teacher may place the toy in front of the child or present it in a visually different way from how it would be on a shelf (e.g., a puzzle or ring-stacker taken apart versus assembled). These features can become discriminative for playing with the object. If spontaneous play is the goal, consider fading any verbal instructions, adding teaching steps until the child is selecting the toy from a shelf or its natural place in the home, and teaching the child how to initiate the play sequence without any teacher interaction.

Here are some final strategies to consider when expanding your child’s interests:

  • Prioritize toy rotation. Depending upon the number and diversity of toys with which your child engages, you may rotate toys on an hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Removing a high preference commonly used toy from the rotation can result in increased approach and engagement with other toys;
  • Provide the toy you want to become reinforcing for “free” in addition to the toy your child chooses during a reinforcement break;
  • Teach skills that lead to independent initiations of activities (e.g., scanning and selecting among large sets or on shelves, requesting items out of view, requesting while watching television commercials);
  • Teach the skill of making forced choices (presenting a few options and asking the child to choose) and then offer forced choices of items that you would like your child to explore. Associating these items with choice may motivate your child to engage with them; and
  • If your child does not initiate play, make sure component skills of games are mastered before teaching the play activity. For example, teach “Ned’s Head” or “Memory” once your child can match. Introduce “Hi Ho Cheerio” only after your child can count objects.


Ala’i-Rosales, S., Zeug, N. M., & Baynham, T. (2008). The development of interests in children with autism: A method to establish baselines for analyses and evaluation. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 14, 3-16.

Ardoin, S. C., Martens, B. K., Wolfe, L.A., Hilt, A. M., & Rosenthal, B. D. (2004). A method for conditioning reinforcer preferences in students with moderate mental retardation. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 16, 34-55.

Nuzzolo-Gomez, R., Leonard, M., Ortiz, E., Rivera, C.,& Greer, D. (2002). Teaching children with autism to prefer books or toys over stereotypy or passivity. Journal of Positive Behavioral Interventions, 4, 80–87.

Singer-Dudek, J., Oblak, M., & Greer, R. D. (2011). Establishing books as conditioned reinforcers for preschool students as a result of observational intervention. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44, 421-434.

Stocco, C. S., Thompson, R. H., & Rodriguez, N. M. (2011). Restricted interests and teacher presentation of items. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44, 499-512.

Please use the following format to cite this article:

Baynham, T. (2012). Clinical corner: Expanding interest . Science in Autism Treatment, 9(2), 16-17.