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How to Know When a Child’s Repetitive Behaviors Are a Problem

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How to Know When a Child’s Repetitive Behaviors Are a Problem

December 16, 2019 | Jessica Robles, M.A., BCBA

Repetitive behaviors are often a cause of concern for parents who have a child with a developmental disability. There are many terms that are used to describe these types of behaviors. A clinician might refer to them as “stereotypy or stereotypical behaviors”. At the core, these behaviors refer to any repetition of physical movements and/or repetition of vocal sounds and can include the repeated moving of objects or the repetition of sounds or words that do not have a purpose. You might hear these behaviors referred to as “self-stim behaviors” or “self-stimulatory behaviors” but using these terms can be misleading because they can imply that the function of this behavior is for stimulation or automatic reinforcement – which is often not the case.

Everyone engages in some form of repetitive behavior.

Typical examples exhibited by people of all ages are shaking your leg when sitting, twirling your hair on your finger and clicking your pen repetitively.

People with a developmental disability often, but not always, exhibit repetitive behaviors. This is most prevalent in people who have been diagnosed autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Although the list is endless, common repetitive behaviors demonstrated by kids with autism include:

  • Flapping their hands
  • Banging their head against the wall
  • Rocking their body
  • Spinning
  • Pacing back and forth repeatedly

A great example of repetitive behavior in a real circumstance would be a child with autism lining up his or her toy cars or dolls, and then — instead of playing with them — claps or flaps their hands repeatedly. The behavior we see may make the person feel better, have a soothing effect or be a way of expressing their frustration.

When to Be Concerned About the Situation

Repetitive behaviors become a concern when the behavior is a distraction, competes with learning opportunities, interferes with the person’s living activities, is disruptive to others or if the behavior is dangerous. For example, if a child is more preoccupied flapping his hands than paying attention in class, the behavior is problematic. The behavior also can be dangerous to the individual or others if it’s very physical or violent. An example of this is an individual who spins excessively to the point of throwing up regularly. If any of these situations occur, an intervention is needed.

Treating Problematic Repetitive Behaviors

Every case is different. It is important to conduct an assessment that yields a custom treatment plan to address the repetitive behavior of concern, but this general approach is recommended:

  • Contact a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) who has experience working with the type of repetitive behaviors your child is displaying.
  • The BCBA will observe the behavior occurring, assess the behavior, look at patterns, identify when the child most likely to engage in the behavior, determine how the behavior impacts the child’s life, and discuss with caregivers the significance and consequences of the behavior.
  • If it’s determined that the behavior requires change, the BCBA may recommend proactive strategies. These are tools and techniques that can be used to curtail the behavior or reduce its frequency. The BCBA may recommend reactive strategies that family members or other caregivers can implement when the behavior is happening.
  • The BCBA also may recommend that “replacement” behaviors be taught; that is, other, alternative behaviors that the child can engage in that meet the same needs of the repetitive behavior. If possible, the BCBA will help the individual identify the underlying cause — the trigger of the problem — to try to resolve it and prevent the problematic behavior from occurring.
  • Often an occupational therapist will work alongside a BCBA – as part of a multidisciplinary approach – to curtail or reduce the repetitive behavior so the individual can focus and perform everyday activities.

With appropriate intervention and support, behavioral therapy based on principles of applied behavior analysis has been very successful in reducing repetitive behaviors in people with autism and other developmental disabilities.

If you believe your child may benefit from behavioral therapy to reduce or modify problematic repetitive behaviors and you aren’t sure where to begin, contact us for a complimentary 30 minute in-person or phone. Learn more about ABA-based therapies.

About the Author

Jessica Robles is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) who has provided applied behavior analysis (ABA)-based treatment to children and young adults with developmental disabilities since 2008. Jessica currently serves as the Regional Director of Clinical Services for California Psychcare. In her current position, Jessica supports local directors in providing quality services.

Jessica became interested in ABA when she was working as a direct staff providing in-home services to her clients. Through that experience, she realized how much progress a child can make when provided with a quality individualized treatment plan, and ABA became a passion for her.

In her spare time Jessica enjoys spending time with her family and cooking.

Jessica Robles
Jessica Robles, M.A., BCBA

Regional Director of Clinical Services
California Psychcare

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Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) / Behavioral Therapy – Home Based

Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, refers to a variety of treatment options that are based on the principles of behavior analysis. ABA uses scientifically-based techniques for understanding and changing behavior, and is the most widely accepted approach to assess and intervene with individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other developmental challenges or delays. This type of therapy is conducted one-on-one, is customized for each person, and is appropriate for individuals of all ages.

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