Repeat, Repeat, Repeat: Decoding Your
Child’s Repetitive Behavior

Repetitive behaviors are one of the core symptoms of autism. Learn more about what they are and why these behaviors occur.

What is Repetitive Behavior?

girl rubbing her templeTo put it simply, repetitive behavior is something your child does repeatedly on an extended basis. These behaviors have been categorized into two groups:

  1. Lower-order: hand flapping, fidgeting with objects, body rocking, grunting, repeating phrases
  2. Higher-order: routines, rituals, insistence on sameness, intense interests

Repetitive behaviors are a part of every child’s development and are sometimes not symptomatic of autism. For example, a baby may flap their hands when excited or an adult may jiggle their leg when bored or impatient. Because repetitive behavior emerges in toddlerhood for children with ASD, it is often one of the first signs of an autism diagnosis on the horizon. However, it is important to note that not every child who exhibits repetitive behavior has autism, which will be discussed later.

Repetitive behaviors are seen in people across the autism spectrum. As most of the focus with studies of autism has been on social and communication difficulties, repetitive behaviors have often been ignored in research other than as an early indicator.

repetitive behaviors

What is Repetitive Behavior?

To put it simply, repetitive behavior is something your child does repeatedly on an extended basis. These behaviors have been categorized into two groups:

  1. Lower-order: hand flapping, fidgeting with objects, body rocking, grunting, repeating phrases
  2. Higher-order: routines, rituals, insistence on sameness, intense interests

Repetitive behaviors are a part of every child’s development and are sometimes not symptomatic of autism. For example, a baby may flap their hands when excited or an adult may jiggle their leg when bored or impatient. Because repetitive behavior emerges in toddlerhood for children with ASD, it is often one of the first signs of an autism diagnosis on the horizon. However, it is important to note that not every child who exhibits repetitive behavior has autism, which will be discussed later.

Repetitive behaviors are seen in people across the autism spectrum. As most of the focus with studies of autism has been on social and communication difficulties, repetitive behaviors have often been ignored in research other than as an early indicator.

mother supporting her son

Functions of Repetitive Behaviors

There has also been little research done on the function of repetitive behaviors. They can be an indicator of the emotional state of your child with ASD. Repetitive behaviors may precede a meltdown, indicating frustration or overstimulation, or may be used to communicate emotions like happiness and excitement. They may also be used as a way to self-soothe in stressful situations. It is widely believed that in children with autism, repetitive behaviors are a form of self-stimulation.

mother dancing with her children

Stimming

Stimming is a subset of repetitive movements that includes twirling, hand flapping, and vocalizations, among others. It encompasses a few of the lower-order repetitive behaviors but not all of them.

There is often pressure on people with autism, especially children, to suppress stimming so that they might appear more like their neurotypical peers. However, people with autism and other advocates have begun to speak about the importance of stimming in the hopes that researchers and clinicians will become more accepting.

mother touching her son's face

Is it Autism? Not Always

Repetitive behaviors are not limited to children with ASD. As stated earlier, they are a part of every child’s development.

However, they can also be indicative of other conditions such as Rett syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, or schizophrenia, to name a few. This is why an early autism diagnosis is important; eliminating other potential conditions will get your child the appropriate help.

ABA professional working with child in therapy

Should I Worry About Repetitive Behaviors?

While repetitive behaviors may make your child with ASD appear different to others, there is no real harm in allowing them to engage in them. They may, however, inhibit a child’s ability to participate in activities if the repetitive behaviors hinder the ability to perform a task.

There are no methods to eliminate repetitive behaviors, but they can be managed to a degree that allows a better quality of life for your child. At The Cardinal Center, we create a unique plan for your child using individual ABA therapy.

ABA professional working with child in therapy

Questions?

Get in touch. We're here to help.