Repetitive Routines and Rituals in Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder [ASD]

Some kids with ASD [High-Functioning Autism] develop a resistance to (or fear of) change, that then involves being rigid in their approach to their environment. Insistence on sameness, routines and rituals begin. For example:
  • Particular silverware and plates must be used or the ASD youngster refuses to eat or drink.
  • Objects may be stacked or lined up in a repetitive manner.
  • Certain routes must be followed to and from familiar places.
  • Certain items must be placed in particular places and not moved.

Confusion about coping in a world that is overwhelming influences this behavior, so the youngster with ASD responds to this uncertainty by being in control of their immediate environment, the objects in that environment, and the people in it. Repetitive motor mannerisms may occur when some kids are excited, anxious, or worried. For others, sensory sensitivities and physical enjoyment may drive repetitive jumping, arm flapping, twiddling of fingers in front of their eyes and covering ears and eyes with their hands.



Repetitive behaviors and mannerisms in ASD children is a somewhat neglected area of research. In the past, these behaviors were associated with lower levels of functioning, because repetitive motor mannerisms are also seen in kids with intellectual disability who do not have autism. These behaviors were also thought to increase during the preschool years. There is now some evidence that repetitive motor mannerisms develop differently to insistence on sameness and these behaviors follow different paths over time.


Restricted and repetitive behaviors show different patterns of stability in autistic kids based partly on the ‘subtype’ they belong to. Young kids with low NVIQ (i.e., non verbal IQ) scores often have persistent motor mannerisms. However, these behaviors often improve in kids with higher nonverbal IQ scores. Many kids who do not have “insistence-on-sameness behaviors” at a young age acquire them as they got older, and some kids who had these behaviors sometimes loss them. 

What should moms and dads do about routines, rituals and repetitive motor mannerisms?

First, ask yourself the questions: “How much of a problem is it?” and “”Who for?” The answer is often that these behaviors are a problem for the mother or father, educators and counselors rather than the youngster himself (who is quite happy to be preoccupied in these ways). Therefore, it is unlikely that the youngster will want to change his behavior. The rules of thumb when making decisions about whether or not to intervene or change routines, rituals and repetitive motor mannerisms are to ask yourself:
  • Will the behavior be acceptable in 5 years time?
  • Does the behavior interfere with or preclude participation in enjoyable activities and an education program?
  • Does the behavior increase the likelihood of social rejection or isolation?
  • Does the behavior endanger the youngster or others?

In preschoolers with ASD, adherence to non-functional routines and rituals and displaying repetitive motor mannerisms may be judged inappropriate because they fall into one or more of these categories, or may be tolerated by the family and others and are not seen as problematic.


The most successful treatments for ASD children with repetitive rituals are behavioral therapy and medication. Behavioral therapy, also known as cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy (CBT), helps children learn to change thoughts and feelings by first changing behavior. It involves gradually exposing children to their fears, with the agreement that they will not perform rituals, to help them recognize that their anxiety will eventually decrease and that no disastrous outcome will occur.

Some treatment plans involve having the youngster "bossing back" the repetitive rituals, giving it a nasty nickname, and visualizing it as something he can control. Over time, the anxiety provoked by certain unwanted stimuli in the environment and the urge to perform rituals gradually disappear. The youngster also gains confidence that he can "fight" repetitive rituals.

Repetitive rituals and routines can sometimes worsen if it's not treated in a consistent, logical, and supportive manner. So it's important to find a therapist who has training and experience in treating this issue. Just talking about the rituals and fears has not been shown to help repetitive rituals, and may actually make it worse by reinforcing the fears and prompting extra rituals. Family support and cooperation also go a long way toward helping a youngster cope with repetitive rituals.

Many children can do well with behavioral therapy alone while others will need a combination of behavioral therapy and medication. Therapy can help your youngster and family learn strategies to manage the ebb and flow of symptoms, while medication often can reduce the impulse to perform rituals.

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD

Loneliness in Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder

It is hard to know if kids with ASD (high functioning autism) are as lonely as their moms and dads believe they are. Therapists do know that playing with a friend, making a friend and being with a friend are "overwhelming skills" for ASD children. Kids without autism make no sense to "autistics," because they are totally preoccupied with their own agendas.

Teaching ASD children social skills is a big task for moms and dads and educators. It is not like teaching the child how to ride a bicycle or tie a shoe, but rather trying to teach something no one formally taught you. How do you teach someone how to read a room, especially someone who has no understanding of other individual's emotions and body language? 

Kids with autism have no idea about how to reason socially and come up with proper courses of action in social situations (e.g., one guy with ASD level 1 got lost in the school corridors on his way to gym. He had forgotten the route, but he did not think to simply follow his classmates to the gym).

Yet therapists emphasize the need to teach ASD children social skills because they desperately need them to get along in life. The child's lack of social understanding virtually colors every other experience in his/her life. Yet the question of whether kids on the spectrum are truly lonely and want friends is a different discussion. Like all kids, some are extroverted and others are more withdrawn. Like all kids, they probably vary in their need for social interactions.


When researchers ask kids with ASD about friendship, they are usually very negative. They think of friendship with other kids as too much work and often prefer grown-ups. For example, when a teacher was forcing a six-year-old to participate in a playgroup with other kids, he said, "I hate kids. I don't play with kids. I'm not a kid. I was born a grown-up." 

Michael, a fourteen-year-old with Aspergers advises other Aspergers children, "If you like being on your own, then be happy with your own company and don't let anyone convince you its wrong." His advice to ‘pushy moms and dads’ is "Never force your youngster to socialize. Most ASD children and autistic individuals are happy to just be by themselves."

However, these kids might be happier by themselves because social activity has caused them so much pain in the past. In one study, gifted kids with ASD could not describe friendship in positive terms such as "a friend is someone who is nice to you." They had only negative associations such as "a friend is someone who does not hit you." These kids told interviewers only about how mean other children had been to them and seemed to lack any idea of what reciprocal friendship really means.

Yet as autistic children go through the teen years, most realize that they are missing out by not fitting in. It is at this point in their lives that they crave friendships with peers, yet this unfulfilled desire on top of high school pressure to conform, constant rejection and harassment can often cause depression in ASD teenagers. They grow more isolated even as they crave more interaction with other teenagers. Young kids with ASD often believe everyone in their class is the same and everyone is a potential friend. ASD teenagers know better.

Research shows that the more time a person with ASD spends socializing, the happier she is. Autistic children can and do form friendships. When they do, research shows that even one friendship will speed up their entire social development.


People married to someone with ASD often talk about their own feelings of loneliness. They tell counselors that marriage to a person with autism feels like living alone. An ASD husband/wife often does not attend to details like anniversaries, may not connect with the couple's kids on an emotional basis, and may not benefit from marriage counseling. A parent of a youngster with ASD may feel rejection when their youngster refuses to cuddle or express affection. 

The youngster's needs are unrelenting and yet the moms and dads' rewards are sometimes rare. Brothers and sisters hide their lonely feelings about living in a family where their autistic sibling monopolizes their moms and dads' precious time and they miss the normal give and take of sibling relationships. Many siblings believe that the ASD child's “disability” is an advantage …a passport to special attention, recognition and privilege.

Helping kids with autism spectrum disorder develop social skills will no doubt become easier in the future. Every day educators are developing better techniques. Researchers are closing in on the genetic and environmental causes of autism and may someday develop a cure. There is promising new research being conducted in a study on "Friendship and Loneliness in Individuals with ASD." Perhaps someday the answers will be clearer for individuals with autism and those who love them.

ASD Teens and Social Isolation—

In the teenage world where everyone feels insecure, teens that appear different are ostracized. Autistic teens often have odd mannerisms. For example, they may talk in a loud un-modulated voice, avoid eye contact, interrupt others, violate others’ physical space, and steer the conversation to their favorite “weird” topic. These teens may appear willful, selfish and aloof, mostly because they are unable to share thoughts and feelings with others. Isolated and alone, many of these adolescents are too anxious to initiate social contact.

Many teens on the spectrum are stiff and rule-oriented and act like little grown-ups – a deadly trait in any adolescent popularity contest. Friendship and all its nuances of reciprocity can be exhausting for a person with ASD, even though he wants it more than anything else.


Kids with ASD [level 1]: Gifted or Hyperlexic?

Parents who have discovered that their young child is "gifted" because he/she may be able to recite the alphabet at 18 months of age - or can read words by the age of 2 - may want to reassess the situation.

Hyperlexia often coexists with ASD level 1 [high-functioning autism]. Hyperlexia is not seen as a separate diagnosis; however, with current fMRI research revealing that hyperlexia affects the brain in a way completely opposite to that of dyslexia, a separate diagnosis may be on the horizon.



Children with hyperlexia may recite the alphabet as early as 18 months, and have the ability to read words by age two and sentences by age three. Many are overly fascinated with books, letters, and numbers. However, the child’s ability is looked at in a positive light, so many moms and dads delay in getting their “precocious” youngster any help because they believe that he/she is a blooming genius.

Hyperlexia has many characteristics similar to Autism, and because of its close association with Autism, hyperlexia is often misdiagnosed. The main characteristics of hyperlexia are an above normal ability to read coupled with a below normal ability to understand spoken language. Many of the social difficulties seen in hyperlexic children and teens are similar to those found in Autism. Often, hyperlexic kids will learn to speak only by rote memory and heavy repetition. They may also have difficulty learning the rules of language from examples or from trial and error.

Hyperlexic kids are often fascinated by letters or numbers. They are extremely good at decoding language and thus often become very early readers. Some hyperlexic kids learn to spell long words (e.g., elephant) before they are two years old and learn to read whole sentences before they turn three.

Hyperlexia may be the neurological opposite of dyslexia. Whereas dyslexic kids usually have poor word decoding abilities but average or above average reading comprehension skills, hyperlexic kids excel at word decoding but often have poor reading comprehension abilities.

Some experts denote three explicit types of hyperlexics, specifically:
  • Type 1: Neurotypical kids that are very early readers.
  • Type 2: Kids on the autism spectrum, which demonstrate very early reading as a splinter skill.
  • Type 3: Very early readers who are not on the autism spectrum though there are some “autistic-like” traits and behaviors which gradually fade as the youngster gets older.

The severity, frequency, and grouping of the following symptoms will determine an actual diagnosis of hyperlexia:
  • A precocious ability to read words far above what would be expected at a youngster’s age
  • Abnormal and awkward social skills
  • An intense need to keep routines, difficulty with transitions, ritualistic behavior
  • Auditory, olfactory and / or tactile sensitivity
  • Difficulty answering "Wh–" questions, such as "what," "where," "who," and "why"
  • Difficulty in socializing and interacting appropriately with people
  • Echolalia (repetition or echoing of a word or phrase just spoken by another person)
  • Fixation with letters or numbers
  • Listens selectively / appears to be deaf
  • Memorization of sentence structures without understanding the meaning
  • Normal development until 18-24 months, then regression
  • Self-stimulatory behavior (hand flapping, rocking, jumping up and down)
  • Significant difficulty in understanding verbal language
  • Specific or unusual fears
  • Strong auditory and visual memory
  • Think in concrete and literal terms, difficulty with abstract concepts
  • Youngster may appear gifted in some areas and extremely deficient in others

Hyperlexia appears to be different from what is known as hypergraphia (i.e., urge or compulsion to write), although as with many mental conditions or quirks, it is possible that this is more a matter of opinion than strict science.

Despite hyperlexic kid’s precocious reading ability, they may struggle to communicate. Their language may develop in an autistic fashion using echolalia, often repeating words and sentences. Often, the youngster has a large vocabulary and can identify many objects and pictures, but can’t put their language skills to good use. Spontaneous language is lacking and their pragmatic speech is delayed. Between the ages of 4 and 5, many kids make great strides in communicating and much previous stereotypical autistic behavior subsides.

Often, hyperlexic kids have a good sense of humor and may laugh if a portion of a word is covered to reveal a new word. Many prefer toys with letter or number buttons. They may have olfactory, tactile, and auditory sensory issues. Their diets may be picky, and often potty training can be difficult. Social skills lag tremendously. Social stories are extremely helpful in developing effective age-relative social skills, and setting a good example is crucial.

Many moms and dads have had their hyperlexic kids go through numerous evaluations, with various confusing and contradictory diagnoses applied – ranging from Autistic Disorder to ADHD, or language disorder. In other cases, there is no diagnosis applied except “precociousness” or “gifted.”

Controversy exists as to whether hyperlexia is a serious developmental disorder like autism, or whether it is in fact a speech or language disorder of a distinct and separate type, or, in some cases, it is simply advanced word recognition skills in a normal (neurotypical) youngster, especially when sometimes accompanying “autistic-like” symptoms are present.

Treatment—

The first step in treatment is to make the proper diagnosis. Then management of the condition follows. When precocious reading ability and extraordinary fascination with words presents itself in a young son or daughter – especially when accompanied by other language or social problems that might suggest an autistic spectrum disorder – a comprehensive assessment by a knowledgeable professional or team familiar with the differential diagnosis of the various forms of hyperlexia is indicated. 

Causes of School-Related Anxiety in Kids on the Autism Spectrum

It's common for ASD level 1 (high functioning autistic) children of all ages to experience school anxiety and school-related stress.

This is often most apparent at the end of summer when school is about to start again, but it can occur year-round. Social, academic and scheduling factors play a major role, as do hidden environmental stressors.

Below are some of the anxiety-related factors that both moms and dads and teachers should consider when dealing with ASD children:

1. Many schools now have anti-bullying programs and policies. Though bullying does still happen at many schools, even those with these policies, help is generally more easily accessible than it was years ago. The bad news is that bullying has gone high-tech. Many children use the Internet, cell phones and other media devices to bully other children, and this type of bullying often gets very aggressive. 

One reason is that bullies can be anonymous and enlist other bullies to make their target miserable. Another reason is that they don't have to face their targets, so it's easier to shed any empathy that they may otherwise feel. There are ways to combat cyber-bullying, but many moms and dads aren't aware of them – and many bullied Aspies feel too overwhelmed to deal with the situation.


2. Most ASD children want to have friends but may not have the social skills to acquire them. Concerns about not having enough friends, not being in the same class as friends, not being able to keep up with friends in one particular area or another, interpersonal conflicts, and peer pressure are a few of the very common ways children on the autism spectrum can be stressed by their social lives (or lack of a social life) at school.

3. Children are being assigned a heavier homework load than in past years – and that extra work can add to a busy schedule and take a toll.

4. Due in part to the busyness of kids’ lives and the hectic schedules of most moms and dads, the sit-down family dinner has become the exception rather than the rule in many households. While there are other ways to connect as a family, many families find that they’re too busy to spend time together and have both the important discussions and the casual day recaps that can be so helpful for Aspies in dealing with the issues they face. Due to a lack of available family time, many moms and dads aren't as connected to their children, or knowledgeable about the issues they face.

5. Not having necessary supplies can be a very stressful experience for an autistic youngster. If the youngster doesn't have an adequate lunch, didn't bring his signed permission slip, or doesn't have a red shirt to wear on "Red Shirt Day," for example, he may experience significant stress.

6. You may already know that there are different styles of learning -- some learn better by listening, others retain information more efficiently if they see the information written out, and still others prefer learning by doing. If there's a mismatch in learning style and classroom, or if your youngster has a learning disability (especially an undiscovered one), this can obviously lead to a stressful academic experience.

7. Noisy classrooms and hallways, noise pollution from nearby airports, heavy traffic, and other sources have been shown to cause stress that impacts ASD kids’ performance in school.

8. Many Aspies aren't getting enough sleep to function well each day. As schedules get busier, even young children are finding themselves habitually sleep-deprived. This can affect health and cognitive functioning, both of which impact school performance. Operating under a sleep deficit doesn’t just mean sleepiness, it can also lead to poor cognitive functioning, lack of coordination, moodiness, and other negative effects.

9. In an effort to give their autistic children an edge, or to provide the best possible developmental experiences, some moms and dads are enrolling their children in too many extra-curricular activities. As these children become teens, school extracurricular activities become much more demanding.


10. With the overabundance of convenience food available these days and the time constraints many experience, the average Aspie's diet has more sugar and less nutritious content than is recommended. This can lead to mood swings, lack of energy, and other negative effects that impact stress levels.

11. Most Aspies experience some level of stress or anxiety in social situations they encounter in school. While some of these issues provide important opportunities for growth, they must be handled with care and can cause anxiety that must be dealt with.

12. A good experience with a caring teacher can cause a lasting impression on a youngster's life – but so can a bad experience! While most teachers do their best to provide “special needs kids” with a positive educational experience, some Aspies are better suited for certain teaching styles and classroom types than others. If there's a mismatch between student and teacher, the youngster can form lasting negative feelings about school or his own abilities.

13. Many of us experience test anxiety, regardless of whether or not we're prepared for exams. Unfortunately, some studies show that greater levels of test anxiety can actually hinder performance on exams. Reducing test anxiety can actually improve scores. Certain aspects of an ASD youngster's environment can also cause stress that can spill over and affect school performance.

14. There's a lot of pressure for children to learn more and more and at younger ages than in past generations. For example, while a few decades ago kindergarten was a time for learning letters, numbers, and basics, most kindergarteners today are expected to read. With test scores being heavily weighted and publicly known, schools and teachers are under great pressure to produce high test scores; that pressure can be passed on to children.

15. Just as it can be stressful to handle a heavy and challenging workload, some kids on the spectrum can experience stress from work that isn't difficult enough. They can respond by acting-out or tuning-out in class, which leads to poor performance, masks the root of the problem, and perpetuates the difficulties.

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD

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