Many autistic children engage in repetitive behaviors, which can also be referred to as stereotypic movement disorder, stereotypy or "stimming," which is short for self-stimulation. The behaviors typically begin before age 2 and shouldn't be confused with the tics associated with Tourette's syndrome, a condition that is sometimes comorbid with autism. Understanding repetitive behaviors in your autistic child helps you cope with them while also helping your child live with his disorder.
Why They Do It
In many instances, repetitive behaviors are a way for autistic children to soothe themselves. Children with autism are sometimes over- or under-sensitive to sounds, light, smells, taste and touch. Repetitive behaviors are a way for these kids to deal with overwhelming feelings and make themselves feel better in certain situations. Sometimes they use repetitive motions to stimulate their senses; other times the movements serve to calm them in the face of a stressful event or place. Some autistic kids use them to gain control of an unfamiliar situation. Others use repetitive behaviors to occupy or entertain themselves.
Common Repetitive Behaviors
Repetitive behaviors range in severity and they may get worse at certain times. There are many repeated movements common to autism, which are the ones you'll most likely see, but others might crop up too. Hand or arm flapping, head banging, finger flicking, rocking, jumping, spinning and twirling are common, notes The National Autistic Society. Autistic children might also repeatedly feel a certain textured object, twirl a piece of string, repeat a word or phrase, make a specific sound or flick a rubber band. Sometimes, repetitive behaviors involve self-injury, which can be very concerning for parents. Other times they are embarrassing. Dealing with your own emotions can help you assist your child despite his behaviors.
What to Do
Experts disagree about the benefit of letting autistic kids engage in repeated movements, according to the Interactive Autism Network. On the one hand, they could help a child block outside distractions that overwhelm him, but on the other hand, some feel that repetitive behaviors are simply a way to gain attention or get out of something. Sensory integration therapy is one form of treatment for repetitive behaviors. It involves stimulating and challenging a child's senses so he is better able to deal with them. Applied behavior analysis helps autistic kids change their behaviors. In some cases, medications are used to reduce the behaviors, though it can't cure them.
When an autistic child uses repetitive motions, such as head banging or scratching himself, he might be trying to communicate something that he doesn't have the words to describe. Autistic kids with other health conditions, such as digestive disorders, might use self-injury as a way to cope with the symptoms. Sometimes dietary changes and nutritional supplementation can help. For example, many autistic children respond to a gluten-free, casein-free meal plan. If your child is hurting himself, talk with his doctor about diet options that may help.