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Repetitive Behavior in Children with Autism: Explained

June 22, 2021

Repetitive and restrictive behavior are among the main symptoms of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).

Repetitive Behavior in Children with Autism: ExplainedHowever, the mechanisms behind repetitive behaviors in autism have proven quite challenging to understand.

Although some experts suggest that these behaviors in children with ASD result from an attention deficit, others are convinced children with autism have abnormalities in the motor system.

According to those groups of experts, behaviors and developmental disorders in people with autism are caused by motor deficits usually observed in autism spectrum disorders. 

The term “repetitive behavior” refers to the unusual behaviors characterized by repetition, inappropriate behavior, rigidity, and a lack of adaptability. These include self-injurious, self-stimulatory, verbal repetitive, and compulsive actions- all of which are stereotyped motor behaviors. 


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This article will further explore repetitive behaviors in children with autism to help shed more light on the issue. But beyond that, we will also explain the causes and offer some solutions. 

What Are Repetitive Behaviors in Autism?

As mentioned earlier, the term “repetitive behaviors” refers to any form of unusual behavior characterized by repetition, inappropriate conduct, rigidity, and a lack of adaptability. These behaviors also include stereotyped actions that are self-injurious, self-stimulatory, verbal repetitive, and compulsive. 

Repetitive behaviors can potentially cause problems when they become a significant part of the person’s waking hours or lead to substantial bodily harm resulting from self-injury behaviors. These behaviors can also be difficult when they create a challenge for the person to learn more “appropriate” actions or interfere with their ability to interact with others.

The condition can also interfere with certain everyday activities, leading to alienation or isolation. As indicated earlier, the actual function of repetitive disorders is still unknown, but hypothesized functions can include sensory stimulation, reward or gratification, and stress reduction.

Repetitive behaviors in children is always a concern for parents who have to deal with developmental disabilities in their kids. Even though different experts have used many terms to describe such developmental disabilities, at the core, repetitive behaviors cover any repetition of vocal sounds or words and physical movements. 

So, how do parents know when a child’s repetitive behaviors are a problem? Many experts advise that not all forms of repetitive behavior cause concern, as every human being engages in some form of repetitive behavior. Simple examples include repeatedly clicking a pen or constantly twirling your hair.

However, although children with developmental disabilities exhibit repetitive behaviors, it is not always the case. The condition is most prevalent in children formally diagnosed with ASD. 

The symptoms of repetitive behaviors in children are endless, but parents can look for the following common behaviors demonstrated by children with autism:

  • Restricted behaviors
  • Pacing back and forth in repeated movements
  • Hand flapping
  • Spinning
  • Rocking the body
  • Banging the of the head against a wall or other surfaces, and other forms of self-injury behaviors
  • Insistence on sameness
  • Inability to learn and adopt appropriate social behaviors

It is important to note that the mere fact that a child demonstrates any of the symptoms listed above should not necessarily be a cause for concern. Children are known to show some of the above behaviors playfully. Therefore, the key here is that these behaviors are regularly repeated.

When should you be concerned about these actions or a specific behavior? Parents should be concerned when repetitive behaviors become destructive, compete with the child’s ability to learn, become a distraction, interfere with the child’s daily activities, or if the child’s behaviors become problematic to others. For instance, if your child is always preoccupied with pacing back and forth or flapping their hands instead of paying attention in class, then that behavior is problematic.

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What Makes Repetitive Behaviors A Sign Of Autism?

At what point can we associate repetitive behaviors with autism? As already mentioned, in themselves, repetitive behaviors do not necessarily indicate signs of autism, as every human being displays some levels of repetitive actions. 

However, when those behaviors begin to pose problems for the child and the people around them, there is a cause for concern. Restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests can form some of the core symptoms of a child with autism. They include specific circumscribed interests, sensory sensitivities, ritualistic behaviors, and other forms of repetitive actions.

What is its relevance to autism spectrum disorder? Different kinds of autism research have suggested that object manipulation and repetitive movements are among the first signs of autism in children. New research has indicated that the brain’s reward system in autism may be over-activated due to some focused interests and repetitive behavior.

In contrast, other regions in the brain are simultaneously under-activated by social stimuli. Some experts have also suggested that restrictive and repetitive behaviors in children help to relieve anxiety, but there is not enough evidence to support this. 

Repetitive movements like flapping of the hands with poor cognitive function are present in people across the autism spectrum, in general. In addition to that, repetitive speech patterns are another feature of children in the autism spectrum.

In what is known as echolalia, a child may repeat words over and over or may even repeat phrases previously heard. Such phrases may be repeated in delayed speech after a few minutes, hours, days, or even weeks of hearing the words. In some cases, speech can be delayed even months after hearing it, known as delayed echolalia.

Apart from repeated movements and echolalia, other forms of repetitive behaviors include fixations and obsessions. For example, a child can be fixated on a portion of an object that repeatedly moves, like on a wheel.

As mentioned previously, many experts have attributed several reasons for this, with some of them lacking enough data to support some of their claims- making it difficult to know the reason for sure. However, other reasons opined for such fixations, obsession, and repetitive behaviors are anxiety, fear, and stress. 

It is essential for parents to figure out these behaviors in their children, as there could be many other triggers. For instance, the cause of some repetitive actions can be attributed to perhaps a disruption in some routine. That is because routines can make children with autism spectrum disorder feel secure or safe.

Any disruption of their routine can act as a trigger. Additionally, when a child is not feeling well but has difficulties expressing or communicating it, their frustration can also be a trigger. Therefore, every parent needs to be observant enough to identify the cause of any stressor, as this will significantly help to reduce repetitive behaviors and anxiety.

How Can Repetitive Behaviors Be Managed?

When it comes to repetitive behaviors, the case is different for every child, and some custom treatment plans can be applied. However, you can also try specific measures to help manage the situation.

First, it is vital to try as much as often to provide children with autism with a routine life in a stable environment. As mentioned earlier, a disruption in daily routine can trigger anxiety and repetitive behaviors. Secondly, early intervention for ASD should focus on enhancing the social and communication skills of the child. 

Beyond that, parents should accommodate autistic children in a way that allows them to have unique rules for the way things should be done. For example, in making room for the child’s preference for sameness, parents should provide the same meal each night.

In doing so, parents should also ensure that they follow precise sequences of action that the child is used to when serving dinner or tucking them to sleep. As a parent, you should try to do things at the time of the day when your child is at their best. Find activities or environments that your child feels more comfortable in. For example, avoid crowded places if you realize that they trigger repetitive behavior.


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Thirdly, try adjusting your expectations based on the child’s mood. For example, try reducing the demands you make on your child when they return from school, as their energy levels may be depleted. Give the child extended periods to complete specific tasks. Also, take time to gauge the child’s mood to make plans. For example, if you notice a child having difficulties coping when outside, it is best to return home. Also, make rules flexible enough for your child. If for example, your autistic child is having difficulties eating at the table with the family or spending time with the same, try excusing them to be on their own. 

Furthermore, try modifying your environment to limit the child’s exposure to things that over stimulate their senses as often as possible. That includes avoiding using noisy home appliances when the child is around or limiting their exposure to foods considered problematic or overstimulating.

Try to monitor your child at all times, by staying alert and being ready to intervene whenever necessary. When managing outbursts and meltdowns, you might try using reassuring verbal attention to help reduce or shift the child’s attention from the source of the stress.


In sum-up, there is still a lot of ongoing research concerning repetitive behavior in individuals with autism. And although not all children’s repetitive behaviors are causes for concern, some stereotyped behaviors should indicate a problem. There may not be a single treatment for repetitive behavior in children, but that’s not the end of the road. Every parent can put various measures in place to help manage the condition.

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