One of the classic symptoms of autism is the child’s use of repetition — often perseverating over an activity or action. Consider a child who watches the same television program again and again without interruption, or the child who has the tendency to play the same song for hours. Movements such as hand waving, rocking motions, teeth grinding, hair twisting, and nail biting are all prominent examples of such repetition and can at times interfere with typical, day-to-day functioning.
Of course, all of us are creatures of habit, and engaging in familiar tendencies are just part of who we are. However, when one accounts for the duration, frequency, and intensity of any given activity or action, we can more readily determine whether a particular repetitive behavior presents a problem.
Case in point: My son, Scott, insisted on eating the same cereal, ‘Gorilla Munch.’ While it’s not my favorite, there are a lot of cereals with less nutritional value and it is gluten free. Even still, as most concerned parents could understand, I wanted him to eat a variety of cereals. Scott was not so accommodating, and buckled at the prospect of forgoing his beloved corn meal staple.
I decided to take advantage of Scott’s other passions – predictability, structure, patterns, and rhyming words to thwart this one boy, one cereal problem. I showed him two other cereals, “Go Lean Crunch” and one I called ‘Heart to Heart Bunch’ as it had the words ‘Heart to Heart’ on the box. I then declared in a very animated, excited way, ‘I have a great idea! What if you ate ‘Gorilla Munch’ on Monday, “Go Lean Crunch on Tuesday,” and “Heart to Heart Bunch’ on Wednesday, and then go back to the same pattern.”
Please note that I already had Scott taste the cereals, and after he rendered the verdict, “Not bad,” I knew we had struck gold. In Scott lingo, “Not bad” actually means, “Pretty darn good.”
Scott remarked that it was the best idea that he ever heard and could not wait to begin the pattern. We were in business! The moral of the story: Use your child’s other tendencies and interests to defeat a repetitive behavior that you feel is counterproductive.
Of course, it’s also very important to try to understand the reasons for a given repetitive behavior. Many children on the autism spectrum, for example, engage in echolalia, repeating the same words or phrases. This is a difficult behavior to mitigate but it’s of paramount importance to try to figure out the child’s reason for this action Is it a calming technique to block out imposing sensory input? Is it attention-seeking or self-stimulatory? Once you know the cause, you can better foster substitute, more appropriate behaviors.
(To address the specific issue of echolalia, I recommend reading, Teaching Developmentally Disabled Children: The Me Book by O. Ivar Lovaas, the founder of ABA Therapy. This resource includes a five-step procedure for overcoming echolalia based on the work of researches, Schreibman and Carr, where children were taught to respond “I don’t know” instead of the standard, echolalia response.)
Another method to decrease repetitive behaviors is to ensure that your child is actively engaged as much as possible. By focusing on other activities, the repetitive behavior may wane in duration, frequency, and intensity. If the repetitive behavior is evident in play (e.g., lining up cars), you can make it more ‘meaningful’ by building symbolic play or strengthening social skills. This is the foundation of the Floortime or SonRise program.
Finding alternative activities is a logical option to limit repetitive behaviors within children. When Scott spins, for instance, I’ll play a game of Simon Says where one of the commands is to spin. However, I’ll provide a host of other commands, and he soon forgets about pretending he is a spinning top. All parents try to divert their child’s attention when necessary, and this is especially important when raising a child on the autism spectrum.
Some repetitive, ritualistic behaviors have their place. For example, a child may engage in a habit as a means to reduce anxiety and/or sensory overload. (Look into occupational and/or physical therapy to also help with these concerns.) Therefore, you may not want to completely eliminate the child’s repetition. However, it may be a sound idea to teach the child when and where it’s appropriate to engage in scripting.
Let me repeat: Your child’s repetitive tendencies can be reduced although you must also be aware that some behaviors help the child self-regulate or calm down. By following the aforementioned recommendations, you and your child will be less obsessive and compulsive about his/her repetitive ways.