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.

13 Responses to Changing Attitudes Towards Repetitive Behaviors and Autism

  1. Eileen Jackson says:

    Our son Cody, with classic autism,has self taught himself to speak fluently in Spanish and play music by ear because of his repetitive behavior. It’s not such a bad thing :)

  2. Sally says:

    Our 6 year old son scripts ALOT, the ABA folks have determined that serves a sensory function. They are proposing a program to interrupt him with “maintenance” type questions, like “What is your name?” etc.
    when he starts scripting. We have our doubts…
    Any thoughts on this issue?

  3. Susan says:

    My initially response is the same as yours, but I don’t know enough about ABA to really be of service. All I know is that the Son Rise Therapy I invoked in the article eclipsed ABA as the best therapy and they seem to have a very different take.

    If they’ve determined that scripting serves a sensory function it seems to indicate that there is a sensory deficit that could be addressed.
    But again, these are just my personal reactions…SM

  4. Janet Shouse says:

    Could you identify the supporting research for your contention that the Son-Rise Program recently eclipsed Behavioral Therapy as the most effective autism treatment? Because I believe that assertion is based on a vote of parents and professionals at the recent Autism One/Generation Rescue conference, not on research. I just think it’s really important to be very clear when stating a form of treatment is the most effective autism treatment.

  5. Kate says:

    I think the son-rise approach is much more effective than ABA. It focuses on building relationships, which is what these individuals struggle most with. ABA is more like dog training, it may give them programmed responses but doesn’t actually teach them much in regards to communication.

  6. susan g. says:


    I was going to make the same comment Janet did; there’s no research-based evidence that the Son-Rise program is effective, and there is still only minimal research that ABA is “effective”. That said, however, there is a ton of evidence in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis that ABA can teach skills, and the founders of Son-Rise have not published anything since their book ‘Son-Rise” about their method. The Autism News announced that parents voted Son-Rise the best program, but not that it was the most effective.

    I am a BCBA and am currently seeking a DIR/Floortime certificate; I believe strongly in supporting children’s development as well as teaching them direct skills.

  7. Autism Key says:

    @Janet @Susan G: Thank you for the feedback regarding the Son-Rise Program in relation to other behavorial therapy programs. The article has been updated to reflect the source of the info, along with a link.

  8. Nichola says:

    @Sally, if the ABA folks have deemed that your son’s scripting serves a purpose, why would you want to interrupt it?

    I am a Mum down in Australia. I have been running a Son-Rise Program for one of my sons for a couple of years now. When we started he couldn’t leave the house at all. He has made extraordinary progress and it all started with loving and accepting him on HIS terms, getting to know him in HIS world. That’s what joining the repetitive behaviours is all about. You can bet that we’ve taught him direct skills over this time, but it has been when he is ready to learn them. The more socially connected he has become, the more motivated he is to learn “academic” tasks. He’ll head into mainstream schooling next year and he’ll have a great life.

    A US University has undertaken a major study of Son-Rise over the last few years and I imagine the results will be published soon, if they are not already.

    There is space for all approaches, as long as love and acceptance underpins all that takes place. There is no one size fits all with autism. Parents and professionals need to be open to all ideas and use the ones that work best with their child/ren. I’d love the autism world to embrace this!


  9. Susan says:

    Thank you all for sharing your perspectives.

    Susan Moffitt

  10. Alison says:

    I would just like to debunk the myth that there is no published research on the Son Rise Program. There is heaps and heaps of research that looks at the techniques which underpin the Son Rise Program. If you want to see any of it you can view it at then type in research into the website search engine and you will get a pdf document that is over 30 pages long giving information about all the different research backing the Son Rise Program.
    I am a Son Rise Mum living in the UK and before Son Rise my son only had a few words and now we have conversation. He appeared to understand very little and now you can reason with him, he is self-reflective. He used to run away and now he wants to be with me and play with me. He used to trash the house now he takes care of things. His writing was illegible now it is easy to read. He never dressed himself, now he dresses himself and can pack his own bags to go away. There are so many things that have changed. More than that it has benefitted the whole family to use the philosophy of loving acceptance. I wouldn’t swap to any other therapy.

  11. Eli Allen says:

    ‎”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.” – Son-Rise.

    That’s great and all for INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS; however, what about language, cognitive, thinking and behavior management skills? Those other skills are still missing in that quote. That’s my point. ABA teaches those other skills if taught correctly.

    In addition, those unsatisfied with “traditional” Discrete Trial (“Structured, adult-learning” methods), their are other ABA modalities. Look up on Google: “Incidental Teaching” and “Pivotal Response Teaching.” Many Behavioral Analysts will agree that these help many children, which builds on a child’s interest.

    Also, I would like to say I wouldn’t be here talking and writing this blog if it wasn’t for the combination of Son-Rise and ABA in my distraction-free playroom. In particular of the ABA part of my program, I received a mix of Discrete Trial and Incidental Teaching-like ABA modality. ABA DOES work and it’s got more science behind it than any other method.


  12. Lia says:

    Yes, but my son’s “stimming” involves his grabbing the inside of people’s wrists and nuzzling, smelling, etc. said wrists. This IS a problem because not everyone wants this sort of touch; he sometimes leaves little scratch marks–I can’t stand the feel of it. Also, he is verbal, but when he stims, he creates loud noises that interfere with whatever conversation is occurring. What if stimming involve other people’s space? Then what?

  13. Susan Moffitt says:

    Well, this is out of my depth. My inclination is to say that there needs to be some sort of replacement behavior introduced that doesn’t invade others’ space. Some sort of toy or pillow or the like that he could nuzzle. As far as the loud noises, that came with the territory for me for years and other people either got it or didn’t and I couldn’t be responsible for their reaction. Telling him to be quiet only inflamed him. So for me it was waiting out the behavior come what may.

    Good luck.

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