Autism and Repetitive Behaviours Repetitive Behaviours Repetitive Behaviours
One of the most recognised - and simultaneously most stereotyped and over-simplified - aspects of autistic cognition is our tendency to enjoy and maintain routines and repetitive behaviours. This crops up in a lot of aspects of life, including some you might not have picked up on. This week's feature is a look at some common areas of repetition for autistic people, and aims to give an insight into how broadly this can affect our daily experiences.
The terrible pun in the title is an (albeit hackneyed) example of echolalia. As the name suggests, echolalia - 'echo' (to repeat) + 'lalia' (to speak or talk) - is the repetition of words or phrases. Psychiatrists tend to use it to refer specifically to the repetition of another person's words back to them, but this is the least common form of echolalia I've seen. There's a growing understanding among autistic self-advocates that echolalia is the driving factor behind a number of autistic verbal quirks that can be classified more broadly as 'imitative behaviour'. The classic example I give is that of a person saying something to me, and me responding with a connected movie quote or even a snippet of a show-tune. A common scenario looks something like this:
SISTER: Why do you have to make things so complicated?
ME: *singing in a mock Canadian accent* "You see the way you're acting like you're somebody else gets me frustrated!"
I would say this makes up about 25% of my conversation at any given point, and I know I'm not the only one. And, whilst psychiatrists are less inclined to recognise this, this actually fits a lot of aspects of echolalia as defined in the literature, specifically as it is repetition of someone else's words in place of original content of speech, as an attempt to initiate social interaction in an atypical fashion.
Unfortunately, because the medical profession seems largely preoccupied with a non-existent 'cure' for autism rather than these features of daily life, the literature on the reasons for this and similar is minimal, or at least not obviously available. However, from my own experiences of autism I would consider this to be a use of social scripting to cope with unclear social rules. Social scripting is a common form of masking, and is used by many autistics to compensate for the struggles we experience in social interaction. These 'scripts' are rehearsed patterns of behaviour which we have learned will produce a positive reaction and prevent social rejection. These patterns can be as simple as smiling or saying thank you, or as complex as falling back on movie quotes when we're unsure of how else to respond.
NEED FOR ROUTINE
In a broader sense, we autistics often find a sense of security and calm in repetition in the form of daily or weekly routines. Obviously the extent to which we can cope with changes in routine varies from individual to individual, but overall some element of discomfort is common.
For me, this translates largely to struggling with last minute changes of plan or mishaps. So, where I'm quite comfortable to do something different every day in terms of activities, something as simple as a delayed bus or a last-minute cancellation can cause a lot of distress.
This often produces behaviours such as repeated timetable checking, getting agitated and anxious if there are delays, and struggling with myself or other people showing up late. It's not an irritation at any one thing in particular; I'm never upset at my companion, or the bus driver, for example. It's a more general sense of being emotionally frantic or off-balance because the plan in my head isn't matching up with reality. The more I understand about how this brain works, the more I begin to wonder if this is due to executive dysfunction. It seems to kick in in situations where we need to improvise or adapt to sudden changes in information, which is something that executive dysfunction and information processing difficulties make exceptionally difficult.
Yes! Although you now know how complex a behaviour stimming is following last month's Symptom Spotlight, the highly repetitive nature of many stimming behaviours is motivated in part by the comfort we autistics experience when engaged in repetitive behaviours. Rocking, hand-flapping, finger-flicking, and other stims are all self-soothing behaviours which generate a regular and predictable rhythm of sensory information which helps us to stay calm and self-regulate in environments which would otherwise overwhelm us, and are absolutely a form of repetitive behaviour.
Again, this is an example where engaging in a predictable pattern - such as rhythmic movement - helps to combat sudden or unpredictable input, and produces regulation and calm. It is also closely linked with sensory seeking behaviour, which leads us onto...
RESTRICTED DIET, OR FOOD OBSESSIONS
I am yet to meet an autistic person who doesn't do this. We find a food we like, and we eat it EVERY DAY for a week until we get bored of it and then become over-stimulated and won't eat it for months.
An educated guess would be that that is related to our gustatory sensory needs - that is, our sensory needs relating to taste. When we find something that provides enjoyable and non-overwhelming stimulation, we're inclined to stick with it. Much like our stims, these things bring joy and calm to what can otherwise be an unpleasant sensory experience to many of us. It can also be soothing in the sense that new and varied experiences can be overwhelming to us. This can make something as simple as eating a new meal every day more stress than it needs to be, which can make eating the same enjoyable food a great sensory comfort.
Spins are also a form of repetitive behaviour, as we will often come back to the same topic or type of information, which again provides a sense of security, joy and regulation. Through my interactions with and observations of many fellow autistics, I would also dare to suggest that many spins also include an element of repetition, order or routine which fits with our autistic need for this kind of predictability. This is true of more stereotypical interests such as trainspotting - trains follow timetables, have clear categorisations, and the layout of locations is often quite uniform - as well as more obscure interests such as ornithology - clear classifications, reasonably predictable times and habitats. These interests also fit into a tendency to collect or amass information, and an appreciation of a situation in which there is a clear 'answer'. This is similarly comforting to those experiencing executive dysfunction, as it removes the need to constantly re-conceptualise information, which can prove difficult.
Obviously the examples of repetitive behaviour are as varied as autistic people themselves, and no single experience can unify something so complex. The examples give here are not an exhaustive list, but rather aim to highlight the extent of the impact of this aspect of cognition and to show the unusual and often subtle ways it can impact upon behaviours and experiences.
Let me know more about your experiences! Comment below, or tweet your experiences/questions to me using @LifeAsMeMJ.
Until next time!