How to Deal with Obsessive and Repetitive Behaviour
For many people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), obsessions, repetitive behaviours, and routines that might appear overly rigid or unhealthy to neurotypical individuals are actually a source of comfort and self regulation. Like all things, however, when used too much, these behaviours may detract from other things or cause distress to the person with ASD, so understanding these needs and knowing where to draw a line is important. To help a person with ASD learn how to manage these issues, it’s vital to understand the behaviours’ function and how to respond to them.
Why People with ASD Develop Obsessions and Repetitive Behaviour
People with an ASD may have any number of obsessions (some of them as common as certain TV shows), but often they center around a “technical”, academic, or mechanical skill-set, such as computers, trains, historical dates or events, or science. Obsessions can become quite odd and particular, however, involving specifics about numbers or certain shapes (things like car registration numbers, for example, or bus or train timetables, and the shapes of body parts or stones). People with ASD can feel quite strongly about these things, no matter how mundane they may seem to others.
Children with ASD develop obsessions as they help to give them a sense of structure, order, and predictability, which counterbalances the chaos they may feel is inherent in the world around them. They also give a solid, sure base on which to begin conversations and break the ice with others. For these reasons, it’s vital to not label these obsessions as unhealthy by default, but rather to allow the child with ASD to explore them. One should try to understand the function of the behaviour and remain observant for signs of things going too far. Such signs include the seeming distressed while partaking in their chosen hobby, signs they wish to resist engaging in it but cannot (it’s become a compulsion), or signs it is making the child withdraw socially more than he or she normally would. Similarly, it may need to be managed if it becomes seriously disruptive to others.
Repetitive behaviour (such as hand-flapping, finger-flicking, rocking, jumping, etc.) develop quite early and may likewise appear unhealthy or troubling, but serves a therapeutic role for the child with ASD. Many suffer from sensory distortions (over or under sensitive senses), so may need the stimulation or distraction this kind of activity provides.
Understanding Routines and Resistance to Change
Those with ASD often feel confused and frightened by the complexity of life around them, due to their susceptibility to sensory overload and difficulty with understanding complex social dynamics. Developing set routines, times, particular routes, and rituals to handle daily life helps the person with ASD moderate their confusion and anxiety by making the world feel like a more predictable place; as such, people with ASD develop a strong attachment to routines and sameness.
How attached the person is, and how much distress is caused by a breach in these routines, varies with the individual; he or she may be upset by minor breaks (even as small as changing activities, or the layout of a room being changed), or need a larger, more chaotic upset, such as the disruption and stress of the holiday season. As a general rule, the more unexpected the change, the more upsetting it will be; warning those with ASD about upcoming changes and keeping calendars and timetables is often helpful.
Likewise, one should expect those with ASD to rely even more heavily on their routines during times of change or stress; as with obsessive behaviours, this reliance should be allowed, but managed so it does not become unhealthy.
How to Manage Behaviours, Obsessions, and Routines
While it’s important to accept the needs of those with ASD and the therapeutic nature of these behaviours, anything done in excess can become problematic, so it’s valuable to intervene early in teaching those with ASD to moderate these tendencies (as, like all people, they become more set in their ways as they get older). To help a child with ASD set reasonable limits, try the following:
- Increase structure so the reliance on these behaviours is naturally lessened. Reduce unstructured situations (including social ones) so that the child experiences less anxiety, and only gradually loosen routines as the child gets older. Praise the child each time he or she copes well with change.
- Use visual supports such as photographs, written lists, objects, and symbols. When people with ASD can “see” what is going to happen, it feels more predictable to them, lessening their need for coping mechanisms. Written notes can also be useful for handling repetitive questions.
- Plan events in advance so that the child with ASD knows what to expect ahead of time. Warn the child as soon as you can about unexpected changes to plans; use visual supports if you can. Also, try to arrange structure ahead of time, such as being sure the school will allow the child to stay in at recess if the outside environment is too much for him or her.
- Use “social stories” to help the child deal with social situations. These are usually short pictorial accounts of what to expect in an upcoming social situation. One should also teach skills around how to initiate and manage conversations.
- Teach the child to look at why he or she needs the repetitive behaviours he or she relies on; show the child that he or she can choose other methods to deal with the same feelings. Insight has been shown to be key in helping a child with ASD to effectively moderate these behaviours. Suggest alternate activities that will fill the same need, e.g. replace rocking with swinging on a swing, and “ration” object collection and time spent on hobbies to something that compromises the child’s needs with moderation. Remain firm and above all, consistent.
- Make use of obsessions in a way that encourages healthy behaviour, such as using a special interest to bond with others who share that interest, or developing a love for computers into a successful IT career. Show interest in your child’s hobbies rather than judging them, as this will increase the child’s self esteem.
Remember that while obsessive interests, strict routines, and repetitive behaviours may seem socially inappropriate, when managed well, they are an important therapeutic tool for those with ASD. As long as the child is not distressed by the behaviour or hobby, or missing out on learning or too much social interaction due to it, there’s no reason to be alarmed. Like any other child, those with ASD need their interests encouraged, praised, and streamlined into skills that will aid them throughout the rest of their lives.
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