One of the classic behaviors in autism is perseveration. It’s where a person likes to talk about something, perform a task or do an activity over and over. Some people call it an obsession others call it a fixation. Most people see it as a negative thing
Do you have a child that likes to repeat things a lot? It is enough to make you want to run away because it gets tiring!
During my time as a therapist I’ve spent a lot of time trying to correct this behavior in my clients. And by correcting I mean stopping. Anytime a perseveration came up I would find ways to redirect, distract, or ignore the repetition. It’s a common practice in autism therapy.
Most times these strategies were met with resistance and the situation quickly spiraled downward.
It got me thinking, does perseveration have to be a bad thing? Is it something that needs to be snuffed out?
No it doesn’t!
Changing our perspective on repetitive behavior and seeing it as a tool rather than a hindrance will give us the right way to handle perseverative behavior in autism.
Special Interest Not A Fixation
When a kid loves to play with trains all day long or listen to a song on repeat instead of seeing it as a fixation look at it as a special interest.
A special interest is something that is special and meaningful to a person with autism. A passion if you will.
Repeatedly lining up trains may not be something kids get stuck on, it may be something they are trying to figure out how something works. Hearing the same song over and over may be a form of self regulation not a fixation.
Typical kids can play Minecraft or perfect their baseball batting skills for hours on end. We see this as a hobby not an obsession. Why should it be any different for kids with autism?
Instead use special interests and….
- Offer opportunities for kids to explore their special interests. What else can they do with it? What are they learning? How can they share this?
- Use the special interest as a reward after completing a task
- Schedule special interest time into the day
Doing this you will see…
- Lower anxiety
- More relaxed demeanor
- Decrease in fixation
- Less need for control from child
Perseverations Communicate Thoughts
Kids with autism are very visual. They understand and make sense of things better with pictures. They also communicate their thoughts visually. Sometimes these thoughts are communicated through special interests.
My former colleague, Judy Endow, who is also autistic describes it best.
“My thinking is comprised of pictures, colors, shapes along with their sound and movement. If I have no way of storing or retrieving information I will need to hold onto that picture until it happens. As a child, the way I would hold onto a picture – a thought that was important that I didn’t want to forget – would be to talk about it over and over until the event happened.”
This totally makes sense! Kids that verbalize their perseveration are usually trying to tell us something.
Next time a child talks about the same topic repeatedly look for…
- Emotional state of the child. What is their mood like as they are retelling the story?
- Look for hidden meanings behind what they are saying
- Breakdown what they are saying into smaller increments
- Translate/paraphrase what they are saying back to them
Need an example? I had a client that often talked about tree grinders and jumped up and down. At first it may appear he loves tree grinders. Interestingly though he would bring the topic up when he was anxious, getting upset, or didn’t like an activity.
Was he just sharing his love of tree grinders? No, he was recalling a time he got agitated when a tree grinder chopped up trees near his house. The sound was upsetting. He didn’t have the words to tell me he was upset about something at the moment. Rather he had a way of retelling a time he got upset to let me know he was feeling angry now.
As soon as I was able to figure out what he was saying he would calm down when he felt understood.
Doing this you will see…
- Child feels understood
- Better to attend to their needs
- Decrease in repetitive stories
- Teach skills in identifying feelings and learn new words to express themselves
The right way to handle perseverative behavior in autism is to see it has a positive not a negative. Repetitive behaviors are like a window into our kids minds. It helps us their preferences, hear their stories, and understand their feelings.
Elizabeth Purpero is a licensed school counselor and licensed professional counselor-in-training. She has her master’s in counseling psychology. Elizabeth has worked as an autism therapist with children and teens. During her career, she has worked in intensive at-home therapy programs utilizing ABA and play therapy along with OT and speech therapy techniques. She has also worked as a mental health therapist helping clients address their mental health issues as it relates to autism. Elizabeth’s background working with the autism community has greatly helped her work with students in schools too. She has helped teachers implement effective strategies, create goals for IEP’s and make classrooms more sensory-friendly. Mark Twain once said, “Write what you know about,” and Elizabeth enjoys writing about autism-related topics and providing additional resources to help those impacted by autism.