Published by: Durham Region Autism Services
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. Click here to read the rest of the story.