Understanding Repetitive Behavior in Autism

Kate Miller-Wilson
Girl lining up crayons in a row

Learn about specific repetitive behaviors in autism, including hand flapping, rocking, repetitive speech, and some lesser known examples. Find out when to be concerned and how these behaviors may help individuals process the world around them.

Seven Examples of Repetitive Behavior in Autism

According to the DSM-V and Autism Speaks, restricted and repetitive behaviors are a core diagnostic criterion for autism spectrum disorders (ASD). All individuals diagnosed with autism are affected to some extent, but the actual behaviors may vary. If you're wondering about an autism diagnosis, it can be difficult to understand what these behaviors look like, but examples can help.

Rocking Back and Forth

When a person with autism is standing or seated, he or she may rock back and forth or from side to side. This rocking behavior can look like simple shifting from foot to foot, or it can be more dramatic and vigorous. It can occur in certain situations, such as mealtime or car trips, or it may happen all the time.

Hand-Flapping or Finger Waving

Some people with ASD may flap their hands or fingers in front of their face. In fact, for many parents, hand-flapping is one of the first signs a child may have autism. This quick flapping can last from a few seconds to several hours. This and other repetitive movements are sometimes called stimming.

Repeated Play Patterns

In children with ASD, play can take a different form. These kids sometimes line objects up or spin toys or parts of toys. These behavior characteristics may be subtle, or they can be very disruptive to daily life. Either way, the behavior is repeated again and again in a way that does not serve a clear function.

Licking, Biting, or Mouthing Objects or People

It's natural for babies and young children to explore the world with their mouths, but if this behavior persists past age three, it may indicate a pattern. If someone licks objects or people on a regular basis or repeatedly bites others, this might indicated a repetitive behavior.

Repetitive Language

A person on the autism spectrum may repeat the same words or phrases without using them to communicate. This is called echolalia, and it can take the form of repeating movie lines, TV ads, or radio jingles. It can also be a phrase or interaction that is reassuringly the same every time. This type of language can be difficult for caregivers, but it may represent a developmental milestone for children with ASD.

Insistence on Routine

For some people with ASD, changes in routine can be alarming. Children may throw temper tantrums when their routine is disrupted, and adults may dig in their heels and refuse to participate in something that is different. How the person reacts to the change in routine can indicate how severe this type of restricted behavior is. Some types of routines include eating the same foods, keeping the same schedule, wearing the same clothing, having the same interactions, and sticking to the same thought patterns. Transitions, or changing from one activity to another, can be difficult as well.

Intense Interests and Preoccupations

People on the autism spectrum often have intense obsessions or "special interests." In very young children, this can take the form of collecting things, such as parts of objects or small household items. In older kids and adults, it often involves a deep and passionate knowledge about a specific topic. The person will repeatedly think of the topic and may perseverate on it in conversation with others. Therapists and caregivers can use these special interests to help motivate an individual to work on goals.

Pensive little girl

Reasons for Repetitive Behaviors

Repetitive and restrictive behaviors can be distracting and can interfere with a person's life, but many researchers and therapists believe there are reasons for these behaviors or stims. According to the Child Mind Institute, stims may serve a variety of functions, including the following.

Managing Overstimulation and Understimulation

A person on the autism spectrum may not be able to filter out extraneous stimuli the way the rest of the population can. For them, the world can be noisy, visually distracting, and generally uncomfortable. Repetitive behaviors can help make this manageable. Likewise, the person may not be getting enough sensory input in an area, so these behaviors can provide it.

Handling Emotions

When people become upset, their bodies show sometimes this. You may have noticed yourself twirling your hair or biting your fingernails when you're anxious. In the case of kids and adults with autism, this can take the form of repetitive behaviors. The consistency of these behaviors can be comforting when things feel unpredictable and confusing.

Should You Try to Stop Repetitive Behaviors?

Because they are an outward sign of autism, parents and friends of people on the spectrum sometimes hope to stop the repetitive behaviors. It's essential to remember that these behaviors likely serve an important purpose, but what should you do if the behavior is dangerous, extremely distracting, or otherwise interfering with an individual's ability to enjoy a normal life? One option is to work with an occupational therapist to redirect the behaviors in ways that are more acceptable and less likely to interfere with daily life. The therapist can also help determine the function of the behavior and find other ways to satisfy that need.

If You Suspect Autism

If you recognize these behaviors and suspect you or your child has autism, talk to your regular doctor, pediatrician, or local school district about a screening. Although it can take some time to come to terms with a diagnosis, it's an important part of understanding and helping people on the autism spectrum.

Understanding Repetitive Behavior in Autism