Repetitive behavior in autism

Repetitive, aimless behavior is a common symptom of autism. Such behaviors may include repeatedly arranging toys, rotating objects, or opening and closing drawers or doors. Repetitive behavior can also involve talking or asking about the same thing over and over.

Most of the time, repetitive behavior is a self-calming tool. They can be a problem when they interfere with daily activities or make it difficult to complete school or work.

This article explains the so-called stereotyped behaviors associated with autism and what those behaviors look like. It also looks at whether repetitive behaviors are a problem and discusses various treatments.

Behavior and Autism

In the DSM-5 (Official Diagnostic Manual of Mental Health Disorders), repetitive, apparently aimless behavior and obsessive, highly selective and rigid interests are described as symptoms of autism.

Autism experts sometimes refer to these behaviors as “stereotypes” or “perseverance.” Different types of stereotypes and persistence also exist in other neurological disorders. As their prefix might suggest, “stereotype” refers to the continual repetition of an action; “persistence” refers to the continual repetition of a word, phrase, or detail that has been uttered before.

According to the diagnostic criteria, showing a preference for routine (eg, liking to follow a set schedule) is not sufficient to suggest autism. Instead, according to the DSM, the behavior must be “abnormal in intensity or focus,” and changes in those behaviors must cause “extreme distress.” In addition, “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities that manifest at least two of the following” are signs of autism:

  • Stereotyped or repetitive movements, use of objects, or speech. Examples include simple motor stereotypes, arranging toys, flipping objects, echo, special (or unusual) phrases. Echolalia is when people with autism repeat words or sounds they hear from others.
  • Sticking to cookie-cutter, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior. Examples include extreme distress over small changes, difficulty switching, rigid thought patterns, greeting rituals, and needing the same route or food every day.
  • Highly restricted, fixed interest, abnormal in intensity or focus. An example includes a strong attachment or preoccupation with an object.
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Diagnosing Autism

What Stereotype Behaviors Look Like

Repetitive behaviors in autism vary from person to person. For some, it involves saying or talking about the same things over and over. This might include listing all of Marvel’s Avengers and their powers, reciting a TV script, or asking the same question multiple times in a row.

For others, it involves physical movements, such as repetitive shaking, flicking, or pacing. In more severe forms of autism, stereotyped behaviors can be violent, such as head banging. Some people on the autism spectrum engage in repetitive behaviors constantly, while others persist only occasionally during times of stress, anxiety, or restlessness.

Even non-autistic people can get annoyed when asked to stop or change a behavior. But people with autism may react to such requests to extremes.

possible exaggerated reaction

When a person with autism is asked to change their routine, the response may be overwhelming anxiety or anger, even if the person is otherwise highly functional.

Sometimes stubborn or stereotyped behaviors are obvious because they are so unusual. Shaking back and forth for long periods of time, opening and closing doors repeatedly, or shaking your head quickly back and forth is clearly unusual behavior.

Autistic persistence may not be apparent to the casual observer. For example, someone with autism might ask, “Do you like Marvel movies?” If you say “yes,” they might repeat a speech they’ve memorized about “Iron Man” 10 times before — in full The same words, the exact same tone and gesture. As a parent or close friend, you probably know the speech before and after.

Is repetitive behavior a problem?

These types of behaviors are not unique to people with autism. Most people behave like this. Common forms of persistence include:

  • A strong “need” to watch the same TV show or sporting event without fail
  • forced cleaning
  • biting nails
  • pacing
  • pencil or toe tap

For some people with autism, persistence really isn’t a problem because it occurs at the same time as others — usually under stress — and the behaviors are fairly inconspicuous.

Perseverance may even be a plus for people with autism, as it may be associated with passionate interests that can lead to friendships and even careers. For example, people with an enduring interest in computer games can join gaming clubs and find others with similar passions, thereby enhancing their enjoyment of life.

However, for many people with autism, persistent or repetitive behaviors are not only disruptive to others, but are also a major barrier to communication and participation in the world. For example, a person who is compulsively waving their hands to exclude anything else is clearly unable to pay attention to the world around them or engage in real-world activities. While there’s nothing inherently wrong in talking about the same subject in the same way over and over again, this behavior can lead to a variety of social and practical problems.

two groups of behavior

The researchers divided repetitive behaviors into two groups: “low-order” and “high-order” repetitive behaviors. You may recognize the former if you see behaviors such as fidgeting, clapping, or repeating certain words or phrases. The latter are typically characterized by a desire for identity, a preference for routine, and a strong interest.

Cause and Treatment

No one really knows what causes autism to persist, although there are various theories. The theory you espouse may lead you to choose a specific treatment (or no treatment at all). Of course, if a behavior is dangerous or risky, it must be changed. Some treatments are more well-studied than others, but all have some success in some people and less success in others. consider:

  • If you think persistence is a behavioral problem, you can use behavioral techniques (rewards, and in some cases, consequences) to “eliminate” the behavior.
  • If you think of repetitive behavior as a self-sedation technique used to block too much sensory input, then you might be inclined to use sensory integration techniques to help people calm themselves and regain a sense of control.
  • If you believe persistence is a manifestation of the autistic person’s true interest, you can turn to therapy techniques such as Floortime or SonRise to connect with them and turn persistent behaviors into meaningful activities.
  • If you think stubborn behaviors are caused by anxiety or chemical or neurological problems, you may prefer to control these behaviors with medication.

Autism Treatment and Therapy


Repetitive and apparently aimless behavior and obsessive-compulsive, highly selective, and rigid interests are known symptoms of autism. Experts sometimes refer to these behaviors as “stereotypes” or “perseverance.” The former refers to the continuous repetition of an action, while the latter refers to the continuous repetition of a word, phrase, or detail that has been uttered before.

These behaviors manifest in different ways, depending on the person. Some may shake, flick, or pace repeatedly; others may talk about the same things over and over. In severe autism, stereotypes can be violent, such as head banging. Some people on the autism spectrum engage in repetitive behaviors constantly, while others persist only occasionally during times of stress, anxiety, or restlessness.

Sometimes, these behaviors can cause problems. At other times, they didn’t — proving that autism violates strict rules.

VigorTip words

Contrary to what you may have heard, read or feared: Autism is treatable. You can get it from researchers at the Autism Institute. People with autism may progress more slowly in life than others, but with the right support, they can still lead happy and productive lives.