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Again, Again, Again: Repetition in Autism

At the age of one or two, the squeals of "again, again" delight parents as they agree to read the same book aloud just "one more time" or give one more giant push of the swing to send a child flying toward the sky.

This enjoyment of repetition calms down with age, becoming less and less common through elementary school. But within the autism spectrum, the brain continues to love repetition throughout the lifespan.

Repetition stems from the circuits in the center and front of the brain. When these pathways aren't working typically, the brain can get stuck in unusual patterns. For example, individuals with Parkinson's Disease or traumatic brain injury may get stuck on a thought or phrase; we call that perseveration.

In autism, the repetition takes place across a wide range of behaviors including --

language (echoing words or phrases, repetition of catchphrases)

movement (rocking, hand movements, hard eye blinks)

use of objects (lining up objects, rolling an object through the fingers) performing the same tasks in the same order daily

placing objects in the same location

watching the same movie or TV series repeatedly

sorting through collections of favored objects

reading about one topic again and again

seeking sensory inputs (spinning, banging, or rolling)

eating the same foods daily

wearing the same clothing or type of apparel repetitively

The brain of the autistic individual gets in a repetitive loop and enjoys seeing or doing the same thing again and again. Many on the spectrum describe the repetition itself as "soothing." They may use these looped behaviors to re-group or center themselves when upset. Using repetition can be a good strategy for calming and should not be discouraged unless safety or well-being at stake. When there is a goal to teach the individual to tolerate increasing amounts of change, this should be undertaken in small bits at a time.

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