Another characteristic of autism is that children affected by this disorder will become fixated on certain repeated activities or behaviors, getting “stuck” on a particular object or activity. Autistic children also have difficulty adjusting to a change in routine. Because autism affects the way a child’s brain processes sensory input, their fixation on repeated activities interferes with imaginative play.
Physical Manifestations of Obsessive Behavior
Repeated motions, called stereotypies or self-stimulation, set children with autism apart from other children. Some children with autism may spend hours flapping their arms or flicking their fingers, or rocking back and forth. Some may suddenly freeze in one position, while others repeat certain actions over and over – turning lights on and off, or touching or arranging a set of objects over and over.
Still other children may become fixated on specific objects, developing a fascination with particular objects and amassing collections of things such as rocks or bottle tops.
A demand for consistency in the environment is another manifestation of autism. Autistic children may, for instance, insist on eating the same foods at the same times, sitting at the same spot at the table, over and over. A minor change in routine or in placement of a familiar object can be very upsetting for autistic children.
Pretend or imaginative play is an important developmental stage, and most children use their imaginations to pretend to feed a doll or to take on the role of someone else. Autistic children rarely engage in this make-believe play. Instead of pushing around a toy car, for instance, they may instead hold it and spin the wheels for hours.
Explanations for These Behaviors
Although great strides have been made in autism research, there are not yet concrete explanations for these behaviors. Researchers theorize that perhaps the sameness and order that obsessive behaviors bring foster some stability in a world of otherwise confusing sensory stimulations. Autism seems to cause an imbalance in the senses: if a child cannot process his environment through his senses, the world is a confusing place. Routine, then, is comforting.
Focused behaviors may help block out painful stimuli, or perhaps these behaviors are linked to senses that work either well or poorly. The child who smells everything, for instance, may be using his stable sense of smell to explore, or perhaps he is trying to stimulate and strengthen a weak sense of smell.
One of Many Symptoms
Obsessive or repetitive behavior is but one of many signs of autism and autism spectrum disorders. If you suspect that your child’s behavior is indicative of autism, voice your concerns with your pediatrician, who can assist you in further diagnosis and treatment of this disorder.