A child turns a light switch on. Then off. Then on. Then off again. Repetitive behaviors like this are part of every child's playbook. Few things get an adult's attention faster.
But what happens when the child keeps hitting that switch despite an adult's clear cries for silence? Could that be autism?
Repetitive behavior is a core autism symptom. That sign alone isn't enough to merit an autism diagnosis, but it could prompt you to ask for an assessment from a qualified expert.
There are plenty of things parents can do at home to curb repetitive behaviors. But most children with autism need help from trained therapy professionals too.
What Is Repetitive Behavior?
Repetitive behaviors are acts people perform consistently and repeatedly for the sake of acting. They don't serve a purpose. While they're often started in response to the environment, they rarely change the situation.
Repetitive behaviors can include:
- Flapping arms.
- Tapping or snapping fingers.
- Rocking or spinning.
- Placing objects in order.
- Grunting or growling.
- Saying the same word or phrase.
- Rubbing or touching the same spot on a piece of cloth or furniture.
Experts say repetitive behaviors vary, as do the reasons behind these movements. But for people with autism, the acts may:
- Offer sensory input. Flapping hands may shift the way light filters through the fingers. Rocking may stimulate the vestibular system.
- Reduce outside influences. Inner noises drown out environmental sounds. Pushing hands into the eyes blocks out light.
- Ease stress. Spinning and rocking can be self-soothing acts.
- Feel good. Some children get intense pleasure from rocking, spinning, flapping, and flicking. The actions may seem odd to outsiders, but to children, these things are fun.
These behaviors are almost always present in people with autism, researchers say. They first appear in childhood, and they stay with the person throughout their lifespan. Some adults with autism learn to curb or quell the urge to do these things, but it never disappears completely.
How Doctors Diagnose Autism
As a parent, you may see your child engaging in repeated behaviors, and you may become convinced that your child has autism. Don't expect your doctor to agree right away.
Plenty of children repeat behaviors during childhood. It's a normal and natural choice, and for some, it's a developmental stage they participate in for a while and then stop. But for others, it is an early autism warning sign.
Children with autism reliably display symptoms by age 2 or 3. Doctors use the 18-month mark for diagnostic purposes. If a child persists with symptoms past this age, autism is likely.
A developmental screening will help your child's doctor diagnose autism. It involves:
- Checklists. The doctor looks for autism signs, such as repeated hand movements, eye contact avoidance, lack of speech, and recoil from touch.
- Parent questionnaires. You answer questions about how your child acts at home. Oftentimes, the information you provide on these questionnaires is some of the most critical data in potentially diagnosing your child with autism.
- Physical tests. Your doctor assesses your child's hearing and other physical markers to ensure that there is no other cause for your child's behavior.
If your child's screening highlights more cause for concern, your doctor can order a comprehensive developmental evaluation. This is performed by a specialist, such as a child psychologist, child psychiatrist, pediatric neurologist, or developmental pediatrician. Your questionnaire and your child's test results are assessed by this professional. But additional tests and observations are often required.
It can take weeks or even months to obtain a diagnosis. Sometimes, that's frustrating for parents. You want an answer as quickly as possible, so you can help your child.
You're not forced into inactivity while you wait. In fact, there are plenty of steps you can take at home to curb repetitive behavior.
How to Help Your Child With Repetitive Behavior
You don't have to obtain a psychiatric degree to help your child. With your observational skills and a few commonsense tips, you can help your child understand the urge to repeat behavior and develop essential skills.
Help your child to deal with these acts by:
- Removing the trigger. Watch for the moment the behaviors begin, and take note of the environment. Was it loud, bright, strongly scented, or otherwise filled with sensory information? How was the mood? Did people around your child seem happy, angry, excited, or worried? Ask yourself why the child is acting. Take notes for a week or two, and compare data. You may spot your child's behavior trigger. When you do, you can remove your child from that environment before the behaviors begin.
- Seeking a substitute. Some repetitive behaviors are harmless. But some, like screaming, biting, or kicking, aren't appropriate. Look for ways to substitute another action for the one your child chooses. Perhaps a chewy bite of taffy could replace biting. Perhaps headphones could block out noises better than screaming.
- Trying a coaching method. Experts explain that some repetitive behaviors stem from a lack of play skills. Young children with autism want to play, but they don't understand traditional toys. Place your hands over your toddler's hands and guide the child through tasks. Put rings on the stack, complete a puzzle, or sort shapes. Teach your child to play, and you may see fewer attempts to shake keys, bang pots together, or otherwise tinker with unusual objects.
- Scheduling time for the repetitive activity. For many people with autism, repeating behaviors is soothing. They consider stimming (or self-soothing behaviors) a core part of their personality. They prefer to stick with these movements throughout their lifespan regardless of what the outside world thinks of their acts. You can instill self-love in your child by accepting and even allowing stimming. But encourage your child to think of these activities as private. Set aside time every day for the activities your child likes, including jumping, sitting in a rocking chair, flapping their arms, or clapping.
This list can get you started on how to reduce repetitive behaviors in your child. Together, you can come up with a plan that works best for both of you.
Why Therapy Matters
Parents can do quite a bit at home to help their children with autism. But often, your homework isn't enough to truly help your child. Autism is a complex disorder with many moving parts. You'll benefit greatly from an expert's help.
For example, some repetitive behaviors can cross the line between autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some parents describe new repeated behaviors their children with autism complete because they didn't "do it right the first time."
Parents can't reliably discern one disorder from another. Only an expert can do that. Therapy for OCD is very different from therapy for autism. Your child deserves the right solutions, so it’s important to get the right diagnosis.
ABA Therapy for Repetitive Behaviors
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a common form of therapy for autism. Professionals use positive reinforcement in these sessions. They determine a goal behavior, and when the child engages in that act, they get a reward that is meaningful to them. Those rewards encourage them to keep performing the target behavior.
Some parents use ABA to address harmful repetitive behaviors, such as self-harm. Others use the therapy to gain insights into why a child behaves in a specific way. Parents and therapists work in unison in these programs to help children.
You'll need a diagnosis of autism to get started. Insurance companies often pay for ABA therapy, but they require paperwork that highlights the need for service.
If you're waiting for a diagnosis, you can't get started with the therapy quite yet. Talk to your pediatrician about how to expedite the diagnosis, so your child can get the help they need sooner. With that diagnosis in hand, you're ready for a partnership with an expert.
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