Autism: Repetitive Behavior

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Autism Repetitive Behavior: Introduction

Repetitive behavior is one of the most common features of autism and includes hand wringing, rocking, spinning, and hand flapping. These behaviors often interfere with the person’s ability to learn, or even socially connect to those around them. However, repetitive behaviors do have a function and purpose in people with autism as it helps to lessen the distress caused by many of the sensory aspects of the environment.

Sensory integration is the process of interpreting and processing the sensory information we get from our senses. This process does not happen smoothly in people with autism, and the most pleasant or ordinary sensations can be disturbing and distressing for them. In fact a lot of the sensations that a person with autism feels during the day are very distressing for them. Repetitive behavior helps to decrease the effect of these distressing sensations, so that they can cope better with daily life.

Thus, it is not really possible to eliminate autism repetitive behaviors completely. However, there are various ways to manage and regulate their occurrence. Here are some strategies that can be used by teachers or parents.

Sensory Activities

As autism repetitive behavior caters to sensory needs one of the ways of reducing it is to provide sensory stimulation through other, more socially accepted ways. A child with autism may benefit from being allowed to engage in activities like swinging on a swing, or being rolled tightly in a blanket or a weighted jacket, or participating in other similar sensory activities. Each child has different sensory needs. Some may require a lot of movement sensation, while others may need a lot of deep pressure and joint compression sensations. Still others may require plenty of tactile stimulation. Depending on the needs of the child, a teacher or parent can plan sensory activities several times a day, and this will help to reduce autism repetitive behavior.

Adaptations and Modifications

Inability to cope with the environment or tasks given to them, can lead to an increase in repetitive behavior. Autistic children and adults perform better in an environment that is quiet and free from visual and auditory disturbances. They prefer being alone in a room, as they find it difficult to cope with the various sounds and disturbances caused by a roomful of people. Dim lights also help people with autism to relax. You may also have to ensure that the texture of the surface that they are sitting on and the materials that they are using are not disturbing for them. In this environment, autism repetitive behavior will decrease dramatically and the child or adult will be able to participate in tasks, and interact with another person well.

Providing Alternative Activities

Sometimes, the key to reducing autism repetitive behavior may be to provide an alternative activity. In some cases this can be sensory in nature. However, sometimes a non-sensory activity that is interesting to the person can also serve the purpose. If a child is rocking or spinning, an activity like swinging or even sitting on a water filled cushion might help to decrease the repetitive behavior. A child who has repetitive hand behavior may stop doing it, if you provide an activity like sand play or finger painting. An adult may stop their repetitive behavior if they participate in an activity that interests them.

Setting Limits for Repetitive Behavior

Autism repetitive behavior cannot be completely eliminated. However, regulating it can allow an autistic person to interact with the people around them. One solution is to teach children and teens with autism to restrain from repetitive behavior for short periods of time initially and then slowly increase the time period.

For example, a teen or child is told that for ten minutes they must listen attentively in class, and then they can go to the next room and engage in repetitive behavior for some time. The child or teen can be rewarded for restraining from the behavior for that time period. Children and adults can also be taught situations when they must not engage in repetitive behavior, for example, when someone is asking them a question and they are answering. These techniques work best when they are taught early in life.


British Columbia Ministry of Education, Special programs Branch, Teaching Students with Autism: A Resource Guide for Schools, 2000

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Temple University, Autistic Mannerisms Reduced By Sensory Treatment,