Repetitive behaviour & restricted interests

School age boy studies bus timetable

One of the characteristics of autism is repetitive behaviours and restricted interests. These include:

  • Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects or speech. Behaviours seen can include hand flapping, rocking or jumping, as well as repetitive verbal behaviours including echolalia.
  • Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualised patterns of verbal or nonverbal behaviour. This can mean that young people need to do the same thing in the same way (e.g. driving a particular route to school, wanting people to say the same thing)
  • ¬†Becoming upset if routines change and having difficulties with transitions.
  • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity of focus. Some may have a very strong interest in one or more special topics. The interest might be an unusual one for their age (such as air conditioners or soap powder) or they might show interest in a common topic but have a much greater interest and depth of knowledge than other children their age (e.g. knowing the name, size and habits of all discovered dinosaurs).
  • Hyper- or hypo- reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment. Many repetitive behaviours seen in young people on the autism spectrum are related to seeking or avoiding sensory input. See the sensory processing section for more information.

Should I try to stop particular obsessions?

Repetitive behaviours and restricted interests (obsessions) are often activities or objects that are calming and can assist young people in reducing anxiety. Because anxiety is often high in young people and adults on the autism spectrum, activities and/or objects that reduce it are highly preferred and very effective. Taking them away or trying to change them can increase the anxiety and result in behaviours that challenge at home and school. Often when we try and deny complete access to obsessions, we can trigger extreme behavioural outbursts. A more productive way can be to utilise the obsession in a meaningful way. For example, a young person with a paper ripping fascination could be taught papier mache` during art class; someone obsessed with phone books could use them during literacy activities. It is also a useful strategy to timetable free-time that allows them to engage in their obsession. It may be necessary to replace an inappropriate or unsafe obsession with one that is more acceptable but provides the same calming effect.