Repetitive Behaviours

Even from a young age, children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) will often prefer the same routines. They might:

  • need to eat from the same plate and drink from the same cup at every meal
  • take the same route from home to child care each time
  • be upset by changes like moving furniture.

Many children with ASD also like to repeat behaviour, sometimes in an obsessive way. They might:

  • like to repeatedly flick switches or open and shut doors
  • like lining their toys up in a particular way over and over again
  • like to collect things like twigs, string or balls
  • tightly clutch their favourite objects and become upset if they’re taken away.

Older children with ASD might have very narrow and intense interests. For example, they might be interested in trains, always choosing a toy train over other toys, labelling every train in their surroundings, and insisting on repeatedly watching cartoons or videos that feature trains. If they have strong verbal skills, they might talk only about trains. [1]

Some helpful links:

Behaviours that Puzzle: Repetitive Motions and Obsessive Interests in Autism – iancommunity.org/cs/challenging_behaviors/repetitive_motions_and_obsessions

Synapse -Repetitive Behaviours – http://www.autism-help.org/autism-repetitive-behaviors.htm

Self-stimulatory Behaviour – or Stimming

Self-stimulatory behaviour – or stimming – is common in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It usually won’t harm your child, but it’s normal to worry about how stimming affects your child’s learning and socialising. Skill development, environment changes and behaviour strategies can help.

Self-stimulatory behaviour – or stimming – is repetitive or unusual body movement or noises.   We all use stimming sometimes. For example, some children suck their thumbs or twirl their hair for comfort, and others jiggle their legs while they’re working on a difficult problem or task. You might pace up and down if you’re anxious, or fiddle with a pen in a boring meeting.

Many ASD use stimming, although the amount and type of stimming varies a lot from child to child. For example, some children just have mild hand mannerisms, whereas others spend a lot of time stimming.

Children with ASD use stimming to manipulate their environment to produce stimulation, or because they have trouble with imagination and creativity and can’t think of other things to do, such as pretend play.

Examples of stimming include:

  • hand and finger mannerisms, like finger-flicking and hand-flapping
  • rocking the body back and forth while sitting or standing
  • posturing – holding hands or fingers out at an angle or arching the back while sitting
  • visual stimulation – looking at something sideways, watching an object spin or fluttering fingers near the eyes
  • repetitive behaviour like opening and closing doors or flicking switches
  • chewing or mouthing objects
  • listening to the same song or noise over and over.

Stimming isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t hurt your child. But some stimming can be ‘self-injurious’ – for example, severe hand-biting.

Stimming can also affect your child’s attention to the outside world, which in turn can affect her ability to learn and communicate with others. For example, if your child is flicking her fingers near her eyes, she might not be playing with toys so much and not developing her play skills. When she’s older, if she’s absorbed in watching her hands in front of her eyes in the classroom, she’s not engaged with her schoolwork. If she’s pacing around the fence in the playground, she’s missing valuable social opportunities.

Why children with autism spectrum disorder stim

Researchers think there might be several reasons for stimming. Stimming might happen because children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are:

  • over-sensitive to the world around them – in this case, stimming can calm them down because it lets them focus on just one thing and takes away some of the sensory overload
  • under-sensitive to their surroundings – in this case, stimming such as hand-flapping or finger-flicking can stimulate their ‘underactive’ senses
  • anxious – stimming might help reduce anxiety by calming them. This might be by focusing their attention on the behaviour or by producing a change in their body that calms them
  • excited – some children with ASD might flap their hands when they’re excited. Typically developing children stim too, such as when a child jumps up and down in excitement. But children with ASD will behave in this way for longer, or might combine several behaviours at once, such as flapping hands, squealing and jumping up and down. [2]

Communication

Children with ASD can find it hard to relate to and communicate with other people. They might be slower to develop language, have no language at all, or have significant difficulties in understanding or using spoken language.

Children with ASD often don’t understand that communication is a two-way process that uses eye contact, facial expressions and gestures as well as words. It’s a good idea to keep this in mind when helping them develop language skills.

Some children with ASD develop good speech but can still have trouble knowing how to use language to communicate with other people. They might also communicate mostly to ask for something or protest about something, rather than for social reasons, such as getting to know someone.

How well a child with ASD communicates is important for other areas of development, such as behaviour and learning.

How children with ASD communicate

Sometimes children with ASD don’t seem to know how to use language, or how to use language in the same ways as typically developing children.

Unconventional use of language

Many children with ASD use words and verbal strategies to communicate and interact, but they might use language in unusual ways. For example, they might:

  • have ‘echolalia’, which means they mimic words or phrases without meaning or in an unusual tone of voice
  • use made-up words
  • repeat words
  • confuse pronouns and refer to themselves as ‘you’, and the person they are talking to as ‘I’.

This is often an attempt to get some communication happening, but it doesn’t always work because the listener can’t understand what the child is trying to say.

For example, children with echolalia might learn to talk by repeating phrases they associate with situations or emotional states, learning the meanings of these phrases by finding out how they work. A child might say ‘Do you want a lolly?’ when she actually wants one herself. This is because when she’s heard that question before, she’s got a lolly.

Over time, many children with ASD can build on these beginnings and learn to use language in ways that more people can understand.

Nonverbal communication

Non-verbal ways of communicating might include:

  • physically manipulating a person or object – for example, taking a person’s hand and pushing it towards something the child wants
  • pointing, showing and shifting gaze – for example, a child looks at or points to something he wants and then shifts his gaze to another person, letting that person know he wants the object
  • using objects – for example, the child hands an object to another person to communicate.

Undesirable behaviour

Many children with ASD behave in difficult ways, and this behaviour is often related to communication.

For example, self-harming behaviour, tantrums and aggression towards others might be a child’s way of trying to tell you that he needs something, isn’t happy or is really confused or frightened. [3]

Sensory Issues

Children with ASD can be oversensitive or under-sensitive to noise, light, clothing or temperature. Their senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste – take in either too much or too little information from the environment around them. Not all children with ASD have sensory sensitivities, but some children might have several.

When children with ASD are oversensitive or over-reactive to sensory experiences, it’s called hypersensitivity. These children might cover their ears when they hear loud noises, or eat only foods with a certain texture.

When children are under-sensitive or under-reactive to their environment, it’s known as hyposensitivity. These children might wear thick clothes on a hot day, or repeatedly rub their arms and legs against things.

Some children can have both over-sensitivities and under-sensitivities in different senses, or even the same sense. For example, they might be oversensitive to some sound frequencies and under-sensitive to others.

Sensory problems like these can make life uncomfortable for children with ASD. Too much sensory information can be distressing, whereas too little can leave children without enough information to understand the world around them.

Signs of sensory sensitivities

The outward signs of sensory sensitivities vary depending on whether your child is over-sensitive or under-sensitive. Here are some examples of different sensory sensitivities:

  • Sight: your child might like bright colours, or squint when out in sunlight.
  • Touch: your child might like to feel different textures, or rub her arms and legs against things, or not like labels on the inside of clothes.
  • Taste: your child might be picky or fussy about food, and eat only food of certain textures or colours, or he might enjoy eating strongly flavoured food such as onions and olives.
  • Smell: your child might sniff everything, or complain about smells.
  • Sound: your child might not be able to stand being in a noisy environment, or cover her ears to block out loud noises, or constantly need music on.
  • Sense of position: your child might seem to ‘throw’ himself across people, or stand on people’s toes.
  • Sense of balance: your child might have unstable balance, or be very agile.
  • Sense of movement: your child might move in a poorly planned and uncoordinated way.
  • Temperature: your child might want to wear warm clothes in summer heat, or not feel the cold and wear shorts in winter.
  • Pain: your child might ignore injuries or have a delayed response to injury, or she might overreact to little hurts. [4]

Autism NT recommends speaking to your primary health care provider or occupational therapist for further information on sensory issues. Autism NT have many resources in their library related to this subject.


[1] http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/autism_spectrum_disorder_overview.html
[2] http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/autism_spectrum_disorder_stimming.html
[3] http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/autism_spectrum_disorder_communication.html/context/1180
[4] http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/autism_spectrum_disorder_sensory_sensitivities.html