Changing Attitudes Towards Repetitive Behaviors and Autism

Repetitive behaviors in those with autism have long been viewed as something to be eradicated. My own son’s problems in school began with his teacher’s intolerance for his incessant rocking and pencil tapping in class. These compulsions got him habitually thrown into the hall, and eventually out of school. 

But times are changing and so are attitude towards self stimulating or “stimming” activities.

In a
recent press release
, The Son-Rise Program announced that it had been voted
"Best Autism Therapy," which included input from over 4,000 autism
professionals and parents. The Autism Treatment Center of America, which runs
the popular program, issued this statement regarding repetitive behaviors:

"We have a deep acceptance of and respect for our children. That enables us to reach across the chasm separating their world from ours by doing something bold and unusual. We join, rather than stop, a child’s repetitive, exclusive and ritualistic behaviors. Doing so builds rapport and connection, the platform for all future education and development. Participating with a child in these behaviors facilitates eye contact, social development and inclusion of others in play."

Behavior is a form of communication. When other avenues of communication are closed for a child with autism, behavior is how we get a sense of what they want or need. The better we are able to decipher their behaviors and what they are trying to express, the more effective we will be in helping them.

Repetitive behaviors have even emerged as a civil rights issue. The Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) points to the fact that fleeing undesirable situations is a behavior that often indicates that a person with autism is being emotionally or physically abused. They fear that a medical diagnostic code for wandering and/or bolting will lead to proactive restraint, shutting down the person’s ability to express that they are in an intolerable situation. Their fear is certainly not ungrounded given some of the harrowing conditions in our schools and residential treatment centers. 

Other individuals with autism point out that just about every person performs repetitive behaviors to cope with
their stress, some are just deemed more socially acceptable than others. Few neurotypical people are castigated for pacing, twiddling their thumbs or turning over rosary beads. And there are also repetitive behaviors of Buddhist monks who move a grain of sand at a time, resulting in exquisite sand paintings. 

Tony Attwood, the famed autism expert, once said that the way to cure Asperger’s is to have a child with Asperger’s go to his or her room and close the door, meaning the problem with autism is as much with the world’s acceptance of it as it is with the individual with autism.

It is encouraging to see the gradual shift of society’s understanding and acceptance of repetitive behaviors by those with autism, but many would agree we still have a long way to go before the stereotyping, labeling and ostracizing are completely eliminated.