Are Repetitive Behaviors Harmful?

repetitiveIf you have ever worked in special education, there is a good chance you have witnessed repetitive behaviors. For those who may not be familiar with the concept, a repetitive behavior is nearly any activity that can be done over and over, such as waving of hands in front of you, lining up objects in a singular manner, crossing fingers, vocal tics… the possibilities are truly endless.

There is a lot of discussion surrounding repetitive behaviors. Some believe that if the action is not harming the child, why stop him from doing it? It is simply a behavior associated with autism. Others argue that repetitive behaviors make the child stand out from his typical peers, and may also interfere with learning, as these behaviors can at times become so intensive the child will shut out everything else. There are also instances where a child may be so focused on the behavior that when he must move on, a behavioral outburst happens.

Still, there is research to suggest that repetitive behaviors make the individual feel calm and relaxed. There are even testimonial videos of individuals with autism who share that, in a world where they may not always feel that they have control, they enjoy the feeling of control that results from a repetitive behavior.

As you can even tell from the differing perspectives above, there is no single answer as to whether repetitive behaviors are positive or negative.stims

For those of you who may be working through this question currently, I would suggest that you collect data on the behavior and observe when and why it occurs. This will provide you with the “best guess” as to why your child participates in a repetitive behavior. If you do determine that the repetitive behavior has a positive impact, you will next want to identify the situation(s) in which you will allow the behavior to occur and for how long.

In our house, Ryan’s repetitive behavior is hand/finger wringing. When I have asked him about it, he has said that it makes him feel calm. Certainly, any calming effect is welcome for Ryan as he struggles with anxiety. Often, the gesture is small enough that it isn’t an interruption of his day-to-day activities. However, in certain social situations I have encouraged him to put his hands in his pockets to draw less attention to his hands.

There have been other repetitive behaviors that have come and gone over the years. Some I’ve ignored, others we’ve worked to eliminate. It’s always a work in progress! As always, I welcome sharing of any tried and true tips from your house!

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