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Understanding Repetitive Play and Movement: Signs of Autism Beyond the Surface

As a parent, noticing repetitive behaviors in your child can be both puzzling and concerning. For children with autism, these behaviors are often a key characteristic. Understanding the nature of repetitive play and movement can help families provide better support and foster a more accepting environment. In this blog we explore what repetitive behaviors are, why they occur, and how we can best support children who exhibit them.



What are Repetitive Behaviors?

Repetitive behaviors are activities or movements that a child performs regularly and often unconsciously. These can manifest in various ways. Here are just a few examples:

  • A child with autism might flap their hands repeatedly when excited or overwhelmed.
  • A child might rock their body while sitting in class.
  • A child might frequently cross two fingers throughout the day.
  • A child might enjoy sorting their cars by color.

While these behaviors can sometimes be concerning for parents, they often serve a purpose for the child.  Here are some reasons why a child might engage in repetitive behaviors:

  • In response to sensory overload: Repetitive movements can help regulate the amount and/or type of sensory input.
  • To cope with feelings of stress or anxiety: These behaviors can be soothing and provide a sense of control.
  • To maintain attention during activities: Some children use repetitive actions to help focus.
  • When feeling relaxed or happy: These behaviors can simply be a way to express contentment.

It is important to distinguish these behaviors from those associated with Tourette’s Disorder and other tic disorders. Children with tics often experience extreme discomfort and a compulsion to perform the tic, typically disliking the behavior and wanting to stop it. In contrast, children with autism often find comfort or joy in their repetitive behaviors.


How to Support Children with Repetitive Behaviors

Acceptance and Understanding
The first step in supporting your child is to accept and understand their behaviors without judgment. Recognizing that these actions are a part of who they are can help build a more compassionate and supportive environment. Be aware that, in many cases, repetitive behaviors serve as a soothing mechanism when the individual is stressed, anxious, upset, or excited.

Provide Alternative Outlets
If repetitive behaviors interfere with daily activities or make your child feel self-conscious, encourage finding healthy and acceptable alternatives. For example, if your child flaps their hands when excited, you might offer them a stress ball to squeeze instead.

Creating Predictable Environments
Structured and predictable environments can significantly reduce anxiety and, consequently, the need for repetitive behaviors. Maintaining a consistent routine helps children feel more secure and less anxious.

Developing Coping Strategies
Working with therapists or specialists can be incredibly beneficial. These professionals can help develop strategies tailored to your child’s needs, aiding them in managing their behaviors in a healthy way.

Understanding and supporting children with autism who exhibit repetitive behaviors is crucial. By fostering acceptance, providing alternative outlets, creating predictable environments, and developing coping strategies, we can help our children thrive. Every step taken towards understanding is a step towards a more inclusive and compassionate world for our children.


Contact our Family Support Team if you would like to learn how to get started with a Diagnostic Evaluation or any other programs and services that we offer. Our Family Support Team is always available to help at no charge to all members of the autism and developmental disability community. Schedule a free phone appointment that works with your schedule:





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