A characteristic of Autism is characterised by restricted, repetitive and stereotypic patterns of behaviour. This can manifest differently in individuals with Autism. Some individuals may have inflexible routines; some many have repetitive body movements and other behaviours (head banging, twirling, spinning wheels on objects); insisting on having certain objects with them at all times; rigid adherence to rules; resistance to change; obsessions or strong interests that consume most of the child’s attention. It is thought that these behaviours may be a result of the fact that due to the stress of living in a neuro-typical world, individuals with ASD try to create order through these repetitive behaviours and routines. These repetitive behaviours serve a purpose – to calm, to address sensory issues, to reduce anxiety; to help the individual feel more in control of their environment and also just for enjoyment.
We have had some very interesting repetitive behaviours in our home over the time. At the age of about 3, James chose to walk backwards exclusively for a period of weeks. James has had a variety of special interests over the years including the Wiggles, Fireman Sam, cars and Thomas the Tank Engine when he was younger. He then became really interested in WWII tanks and artillery, Star Wars, Super Heroes and more recently he is really into Minecraft and Clash of the Clans (iPad interactive games).
James was a head banger as a little boy. He also chewed his lips and cheeks, and often his fingers too. He still often walks with his head on the side (sensory input) and toe walks on occasion. He is spinning less and flapping less as he gets older and discovers other ways to meet these needs in his body. Licking things and other compulsive pica type behaviours continue to be an issue.
Tom was all about Thomas the Tank Engine until he started Prep. He loved his trains. He has always loved mini-figures (Star Wars, Avengers, Super Heroes) and loves to line them up and recreate scenes from shows he has watched on TV. He’s now very interested in Lego, Minecraft and Clash of the Clans. We are really blessed in that the boys’ interests have often been quite similar which has helped really bond them. They can chat endlessly about their favourite topic and how lovely to be able to share it with someone who thinks it’s as awesome as you do.
Tom is quite perseverative in his speech. For example, at night time he regularly asks me how many sleeps it is until the weekend. If I say 5 sleeps, he will then say, “So first it will be 5 sleeps, and then we’ll wake up and then we’ll go to bed and then it will be 4 sleeps; and then we’ll wake up and then we’ll go to bed and then it will be 3 sleeps: …” and he must finish the entire sequence. He can’t be interrupted. This issue pops up a lot even when it comes to simple things like explaining to a friend that they are going to take turns being Batman on the wii – “First you can be Batman and I’ll be Robin; then I will be Batman and you’ll be Robin; then you’ll be Batman …”
From a young age, we taught the boys that everyone has different interests. We have always had time limits around the amount of time that we allow them to spend focusing on their interests, encouraging them to do other things as well like going for a scooter ride, playing with cousins, trying a new game etc. They are really quite good at not talking ‘at’ people about their interests and generally they are quite good at moving away from that interest and on to other things (thanks to being trained with timers from a young age!).
We have always talked about the fact that there are things that we need to do every day –outside time, meal time, family time, job time and just having fun time when they can focus on their interests. The day has many parts – there are ‘have to dos’ and ‘choose to dos’ – you can’t just play the iPad all day! We’ve tried to integrate this with teaching the boys about being healthy as well – that our bodies need a break from screens and that our bodies and brains need different activities throughout the day to keep healthy. James struggles more with this than Tom but he’s getting much better every year.
My advice to parents and teachers is to use these interests. Get to know a bit about the child’s special interests yourself – this will be wonderful for rapport building. Remember that their special interests and/or restricted behaviours serve a purpose for the child so they will need times every day just to focus on their interest. Use these special interests as a motivator for learning and as a reward for completing ‘have to do’ tasks. Remember – this ability to focus on a subject is a real gift. Often these interests become lifelong passions and can lead our children into careers related to these interests.