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Repetitive Behavior Autism: What It Is, Why It Happens, and Why It Is Often Not a Problem


Raw green peas in three rows of three symbolizing the many possibilities of repetitive behaviors demonstrated by autistic individuals.
Raw green peas in three rows of three symbolizing the many possibilities of repetitive behaviors demonstrated by autistic individuals.

Key Takeaways:


  • Repetitive behavior autism is one of the core features of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and affects many autistic people of all ages and abilities.

  • It can have positive and negative effects on autistic people, depending on the type, function, and impact of the behavior.

  • A complex and individual combination of biological, psychological, and social factors can cause it.

  • It can be classified into four main types: stereotypies, compulsions, rituals, and sameness.

  • It can be assessed and managed with the help of various tools, strategies, and approaches.

  • It can be supported by caregivers, supporters, and professionals who are patient, understanding, and respectful.

  • It is a natural and valid part of being autistic and can be embraced and celebrated.


Introduction

Repetitive behavior is a term that describes a range of behaviors that are repeated over and over again, in a fixed or rigid way, and often without a clear purpose or goal. Some examples of repetitive behaviors in autism are:

  • Repeating words, phrases, sounds, or songs

  • Lining up, sorting, or arranging objects

  • Following routines, rules, or rituals

  • Resisting change or novelty

Repetitive behavior is one of the core features of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a developmental condition that affects how people communicate, interact, and perceive the world. It affects many autistic people of all ages and abilities and can vary in frequency, intensity, duration, and function.


The main purpose of this article is to provide information and guidance on understanding, managing, and supporting repetitive behavior. Whether you are an autistic person, a parent, a caregiver, a supporter, or a professional, this article will help you learn more about this fascinating and complex aspect of autism.


In the next sections, we will explore some of the benefits, challenges, causes, types, assessment, management, and support of repetitive behavior.


The Benefits of Repetitive Behavior Autism

Repetitive behavior is often seen as a problem or a symptom that needs to be fixed or eliminated. However, this is not always the case. It can also have positive effects on autistic people, such as:

  • Providing comfort, calm, and security

  • Stimulating the senses, the brain, and the body

  • Expressing emotions, thoughts, and preferences

  • Coping with stress, anxiety, or trauma

It can benefit autistic people in different situations, such as:

  • Reducing stress or anxiety by engaging in soothing or familiar behaviors, such as rocking, humming, or cuddling a soft toy

  • Enhancing focus or concentration by stimulating or blocking out sensory input, such as spinning, tapping, or wearing headphones

  • Communicating needs or emotions by using gestures, sounds, or words, such as hand flapping, echolalia, or scripting

  • Having fun or enjoying oneself by exploring or creating patterns, rhythms, or movements, such as bouncing, dancing, or singing

Repetitive behavior is not always a problem or a sign of distress, but rather a natural and valid part of being autistic. Autistic people have the right to engage in repetitive behavior as long as it does not harm themselves or others and as long as it does not prevent them from fulfilling their potential and goals. It can be a source of joy, comfort, and expression for autistic people, and it should be respected and celebrated.


The Challenges of Repetitive Behavior Autism

Repetitive behaviors can also pose some challenges for autistic people and those around them, such as:

  • Interfering with learning, working, or socializing

  • Attracting unwanted attention, judgment, or stigma

  • Causing harm or discomfort to oneself or others

It can challenge autistic people in different contexts, such as:

  • Distracting from tasks or goals by consuming time, energy, or attention, such as repeating a video game level, checking a phone, or counting steps

  • Attracting unwanted attention, judgment, or stigma by appearing odd, inappropriate, or disruptive, such as by hand flapping, jumping, or engaging in behaviors that interfere with conversations.

  • Creating conflicts or misunderstandings by violating norms, expectations, or boundaries, such as insisting on rules, rituals, or routines, or resisting change or novelty

It can sometimes indicate an underlying issue or need, such as:

  • Boredom, lack of stimulation, or interest

  • Anxiety, fear, or insecurity

  • Pain, discomfort, or sensory overload

  • Trauma, abuse, or neglect

Repetitive behavior can become a problem or a symptom when it causes significant impairment or distress to the autistic person or others and when it prevents the autistic person from achieving their potential and goals. It can also be a signal that the autistic person needs more support, understanding, or intervention. It can be a challenge for autistic people, but it can also be an opportunity for growth, change, and empowerment.


The Causes of Repetitive Behavior Autism

The exact causes of repetitive behavior are not fully understood, but some possible factors may contribute to it, such as:

  • Genetics, or inherited traits, influence the development and function of the brain and the nervous system.

  • Brain structure, or differences in the size, shape, or connectivity of certain brain regions that are involved in movement, reward, or habit formation.

  • Environmental influences, or external factors that affect the brain and behavior, such as prenatal exposure, infections, toxins, or stress.

These factors may affect the development and expression of repetitive behavior, such as:

  • Influencing the levels of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, serotonin, or oxytocin, that regulate mood, motivation, and social bonding

  • Triggering the fight-or-flight response, or the activation of the sympathetic nervous system that prepares the body for danger or stress

  • Reinforcing the behavior, or the strengthening of the neural pathways that associate the behavior with a positive or negative outcome

There is no single cause or explanation for repetitive behavior, but rather a complex and individual combination of biological, psychological, and social factors. Repetitive behavior is not a choice or a fault, but rather a result of how the brain and the body work. It is not a disease or a disorder, but rather a diversity or a difference.


The Types of Repetitive Behavior Autism

While it is not possible to list all repetitive behaviors because they can be highly individual, repetitive behavior autism typically falls into four main categories:

  • Enjoying or producing movements or sounds that are rhythmic, fixed, or predictable.

  • Engaging in behaviors that are driven by urges or a desire to follow a rule or pattern

  • Following behaviors that are linked to a sequence and are aimed at maintaining order or consistency, such as lining up, sorting, or arranging objects.

  • Engaging in behaviors related to preference or routine or a resistance to change or novelty.

  • Enjoying finding patterns or symmetry in visual settings, looking at objects from unusual angles, or focusing on asymmetry in places where symmetry is usually found.

The Management of Repetitive Behavior Autism

Through working with Lara, individuals can decide how they want to proceed in life concerning their repetitive behaviors. With Lara's input and guidance, they can determine which repetitive behaviors are helpful in their lives, and which they may want to try to reduce. Replacing a repetitive behavior that is problematic in one's life with another, less problematic one is another option that Lara can help advise on.


The Support of Repetitive Behavior Autism

The support of repetitive behavior is the role and responsibility of caregivers, supporters, and professionals who interact with autistic people who engage in repetitive behavior. The support can help the autistic person and their supporters accept, understand, and respect the behavior and address the challenges and opportunities that it might present.

The support of repetitive behavior can be achieved with the help of various best practices and principles, such as:

  • Being patient, understanding, and respectful, or showing empathy, compassion, and tolerance for the autistic person and their behavior, without judging, criticizing, or mocking them.

  • Using clear, consistent, and positive communication, or speaking, listening, and responding to the autistic person and their behavior, using simple, direct, and affirmative language, and avoiding sarcasm, irony, or ambiguity.

  • Seeking professional guidance, joining support groups, accessing online information, consulting, networking, or learning from experts, peers, or resources who have the knowledge, experience, or insight on repetitive behavior.

Support for repetitive behavior can be provided by anyone who cares about or works with autistic people who engage in repetitive behavior, such as parents, siblings, friends, partners, teachers, colleagues, or mentors. The support can also involve the participation of the autistic person, who can express their needs, preferences, and feelings.

The support of repetitive behavior can help the autistic person and their supporters embrace, celebrate, and empower the behavior and foster a positive and inclusive environment.


Conclusion

Repetitive behavior autism is a term that describes a range of behaviors that are repeated over and over again, in a fixed or rigid way, and often without a clear purpose or goal. Repetitive behavior is one of the core features of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a developmental condition that affects how people communicate, interact, and perceive the world. Repetitive behavior affects many autistic people of all ages and abilities and can vary in frequency, intensity, duration, and function.


If you are an autistic person who engages in repetitive behaviors, or a parent, caregiver, or supporter of one, and you want to learn more, do more, or be more with the behavior, you can visit Autism-Discovery.com to find out more about the services and resources that are available for you.


If you are interested in working with Lara, an autism coach who is also autistic and who has 28 years of teaching and interacting with students, parents, and colleagues, you can check out How She Can Help you to see the different programs and packages that she offers, such as guided self-assessment, mentoring, and counseling, or the PEERS program.


If you are ready to take action and start your journey with Lara, you can book an Appointment with her today and get a consultation to discuss your needs, goals, and expectations.



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