Understanding & Managing Repetitive Behaviors in Autism

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental condition characterized by challenges with social communication and the presence of restrictive, repetitive patterns of behavior. These restrictive, repetitive behaviors and interests, often referred to as RRBs, are core diagnostic features of ASD. RRBs can significantly impact day-to-day functioning and quality of life for autistic individuals. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the characteristics, causes, and management of RRBs so you can better understand this key aspect of autism.

Understanding & Managing Repetitive Behaviors in Autism
Understanding & Managing Repetitive Behaviors in Autism

What Are Repetitive and Restricted Behaviors?

Repetitive and restricted behaviors (RRBs) refer to a wide range of actions, interests, and rigid or inflexible patterns of behavior commonly seen in individuals with ASD. RRBs are categorized into two main types:

Lower-Order Repetitive Behaviors

These include simple, repetitive motor movements like hand flapping, rocking, spinning, or repetitive manipulation of objects. Echolalia, which is the repetition of words or phrases, is also considered a lower-order behavior.

Higher-Order Repetitive Behaviors

These include strong attachments to specific objects or rituals, extreme distress at small changes, inflexible routines and schedules, and highly focused interests in specific topics.

Some examples of RRBs include:

  • Repetitive motor movements like flicking fingers, clapping, rocking, spinning, or hand flapping
  • Repeating words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
  • Arranging toys or objects in a certain way over and over
  • Following specific routines or schedules obsessively
  • Getting very upset by small changes in the environment or routine
  • Having an extremely narrow interest in certain topics or objects
  • Repeatedly talking about or asking questions about a favorite topic

RRBs can range from mild to severe. Some autistic people engage in them constantly, while others demonstrate them more intermittently when stressed or anxious. RRBs also vary in their impact – some are harmless while others can significantly interfere with daily activities.

Why Do Repetitive and Restricted Behaviors Occur?

The underlying causes of RRBs are not fully understood, though researchers have proposed several theories:

  • Self-regulation and coping – RRBs may help manage anxiety, sensory overload, or other unpleasant experiences. The repetitive motions and routines can have a self-soothing, calming effect.
  • Cognitive deficits – Some research points to executive functioning difficulties, like problems with cognitive flexibility and transitioning between tasks or thoughts.
  • Genetics – Studies have identified genetic mutations associated with higher rates of RRBs, suggesting a biological component.
  • Neurological factors – Differences in brain structure and connectivity, especially in regions related to habit formation and cognition, may contribute to RRBs.
  • Reinforcement – Certain RRBs, like repetitive toy play, may be inadvertently reinforced through parental attention.

There is likely no single cause, but rather a combination of factors that contribute to RRBs in ASD.

Are Repetitive Behaviors Problematic?

RRBs are not inherently problematic. In fact, they can sometimes serve as coping mechanisms or provide comfort. However, RRBs can become concerning when:

  • They interfere significantly with learning and socialization
  • They prevent engagement in day-to-day activities
  • They result in self-injury
  • They cause heightened stress and anxiety when interrupted
  • They disrupt family functioning or pose safety risks

Severe RRBs that negatively impact quality of life may require professional intervention. But milder RRBs that are not distressing or disruptive may not need treatment. It comes down to looking at the specific behavior in context, considering the individual’s unique needs and sensitivities.

Effective Strategies for Managing Repetitive Behaviors

If an individual’s RRBs are impeding functioning or safety, several management strategies may help:

Behavioral Interventions

  • Functional behavior analysis to identify triggers and functions of the behavior
  • Reinforcement schedules to reward flexibility and appropriate behaviors
  • Visual supports like schedules and checklists to ease transitions
  • Antecedent interventions to modify conditions preceding the behavior
  • Functional communication training to replace RRBs with more appropriate communication

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

  • Helps build cognitive flexibility and coping skills
  • Addresses rigidity in thinking patterns
  • Teaches strategies like mindfulness to manage anxiety


  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may reduce repetitive behaviors
  • Atypical antipsychotics like risperidone can ease irritability and rigidity
  • Medication should be used cautiously and monitored by a doctor

Sensory-Based Approaches

  • Sensory integration therapy
  • Providing appropriate sensory supports and accommodations
  • Creating a low-stimulation environment

Developmental Approaches

  • Relationship-focused approaches like Floortime
  • Following the child’s lead in play and interaction
  • Expanding the variety of activities and experiences

Supporting Special Interests

  • Embrace interests rather than eliminating them
  • Set aside time for preferred activities
  • Find social opportunities related to the interest
  • Develop skills and talents related to the area of interest

Visual Supports and Structure

  • Post schedules, timers, calendars, and checklists
  • Give warnings before transitions
  • Explain changes in routine ahead of time
  • Make a structured, predictable environment

Start Small and Build On Successes

  • Target one manageable behavior at a time
  • Take an incremental approach
  • Notice and praise even tiny steps in the right direction
  • Don’t expect overnight dramatic changes

It often takes consistency and a multi-pronged approach to make headway with entrenched RRBs. Always start by trying the least restrictive options first. The goal should be supporting the individual’s autonomy, not just eliminating the behavior. Patience and meeting the child where they are developmentally is key.

The Takeaway on Repetitive Behaviors in Autism

Restrictive and repetitive patterns of behavior are a core feature of ASD, occurring in the vast majority of individuals on the spectrum. RRBs encompass both simple, repetitive motor behaviors as well as more complex cognitive rigidity and ritualistic actions. Though no single cause for RRBs has been confirmed, research suggests a combination of genetic, neurological, cognitive, and behavioral factors contribute.

RRBs can serve adaptive purposes like self-regulation, but can also significantly interfere with learning, socialization, and everyday functioning. Careful assessment is needed to determine if treatment is warranted. A number of therapies and supports can help manage problematic RRBs, with behavioral and developmental approaches among the most effective. But progress takes time and consistency. RRBs should be addressed compassionately, not punitively. Focus on understanding the function and building skills, rather than just eliminating the behavior. With the right supports, many autistic individuals can learn to regulate and manage their RRBs, improving their quality of life.

In-Home ABA Therapy in Maryland for Autism Spectrum Disorder

At Jade ABA Therapy, we specialize in providing customized ABA services right in the comfort of your Maryland home. Our passionate team has extensive training in using the proven methods of applied behavior analysis to address autism behaviors like repetitive and restricted patterns. We develop individualized treatment plans that meet your child’s unique needs, with a focus on building communication, social, and daily living skills. If you’re looking for a supportive partner in helping your child manage challenging behaviors and thrive, contact Jade ABA Therapy today at (410) 616-0901 to get started. With our personalized, play-based ABA therapy in Maryland, we can help your child succeed.


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