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Over and over and over again. Doesn’t that seem like the story of school and church? We do all kinds of things over and over again. We value everyday routines and rituals. A very old adage in teaching is that the key to learning is repetition, repetition, repetition. And yet, when carried to the extreme, repetitive behaviors become a stumbling block to school success for students on the autism spectrum.
Remember that one of the core defining characteristics of autism spectrum disorder is repetitive behaviors. While the term repetitive may seem simple (you’re thinking, “What’s the big deal? So they do things over and over again?”), these behaviors are really very complex and present all kinds of challenges.
Repetitive behaviors can include what are often referred to as stimming behaviors, which seem to stimulate the brain somehow. These include such behaviors as rocking, hand flapping, teeth grinding, and twirling of objects. Some stimming behaviors can also be self-injurious, like picking at hair or nails, self-biting, self-hitting, or head banging, in extreme cases. These behaviors seem to provide a sort of self-soothing and have a tendency to increase in frequency and intensity when the person is dealing with anxiety. Most of us do some measure of this type of self-soothing behavior—twirling hair, biting fingernails, chewing on pencils, and tapping feet, for example. But these behaviors seem to fall within the bounds of what society considers normal, not autistic. The types of behaviors described above, though, can cause a child on the autism spectrum a lot of problems in a typical classroom. Other students tend to be annoyed by these repetitive behaviors, as do teachers—not to mention the inherent problems with self-injurious behaviors. Students who engage in these behaviors are likely not engaged with their peers but are turning inward into their own little world.
Repetitive behaviors can also be exhibited in speech. The fancy word for this is echolalia, a word that reflects the behavior. The child repeats phrases over and over, much like an echo or a parrot. Sometimes these phrases come from something the child has heard on television or the radio; sometimes a student might just echo what you are saying in a class lecture or conversation. It’s not uncommon for a child to be reprimanded for this behavior, because it appears to be disrespecting and mocking the teacher or used inappropriately; but in fact, it’s a function of the child’s autistic behavior.
Repetitive behaviors can also manifest themselves as obsessions, such as the child who lines up all her toy cars or trains in a very specific way over and over. Another extension of repetitive behavior is an obsession with a specific topic. Examples of this are students obsessed with Disney characters, the Civil War, World War II jets, and vacuum cleaners. There are as many different obsessions as there are kids with autism. As adults, this type of specific-topic expertise is highly prized; but for children in school, it’s just the opposite. To tip the scales back in a positive direction, why not appoint your student “Resident Expert”?
Another fancy word for a type of repetitive behavior is perseveration. This describes the child who persists at doing something and is not able to stop that behavior and move on. In the classroom, this might manifest itself in a child unwilling to stop working on a task until it is finished, even if the teacher has given instructions to stop and move on to the next thing. Another example is the child who will not stop talking about a particular topic. You’ll notice that the word perseveration is very closely related to the word persevere, a trait that is often lauded in people, but when taken to the extreme becomes problematic. In the classroom, the child who perseverates on a task or topic often appears to have a noncompliance issue because he or she won’t stop and change tasks when the teacher gives instructions to do so. In fact, however, it’s not a compliance issue, but a perseveration issue.
Children on the autism spectrum crave ritual and routine. This, too, falls under the category of repetitive behaviors. They like doing the same thing over and over. Some might say that we in the church are the same way about our commonly used and repeated liturgy. It is a natural human response to crave good order out of the chaos of our world. We are created as a people to use ritual to respond to the divine. Ritual and routine are not in and of themselves negative things; in fact, they were created for our good. Like all good things, however, when carried to the extreme, they can become problematic.
Without an understanding of these behaviors, one will often treat them merely as misbehaviors in need of correction. Instead, we must consider how we can help students manage these behaviors so that they are reduced to socially acceptable levels. Often, this means lowering stress levels, helping students anticipate a shift in activity by providing visual schedules, practicing socially acceptable conversations, and identifying substitute behaviors to replace unacceptable ones.
The flip side of this issue in the classroom is helping the other students understand and respond to the repetitive behaviors of their classmates who are on the autism spectrum. Many times, students are more accepting than we as adults are, though sometimes they can also be more negative in their response. Your response to your students’ repetitive behaviors will set the tone for your class and how they respond to one another. If you are kind, patient, and accepting, the rest of the students will likely follow your lead.
We have a wonderful opportunity to utilize the rituals of the church and classroom to connect with students who love ritual so much. Identify some of these behaviors as strengths rather than deficits. Think about how you can help children channel their repetitive energy, intensity, and interest in positive and useful directions. Just because a child has differences doesn’t mean those differences have to be deficits. Can you reframe any of the repetitive behaviors of a student in a way that the student and the rest of the class can see them as gifts from God to be used in His kingdom? Do some research to find examples of people on the autism spectrum who have used their unique gifts in a positive way. Pray that the Holy Spirit will lead your teaching and understanding of all your children, and especially of those on the autism spectrum. Approach God’s throne in prayer over and over and over again. God won’t mind your repetition.
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