My name is Kala McClellan, and I am blessed to witness the amazing growth and development of the children we work with at Partners throughout their incredible journeys. I am a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) supervising clinical treatment for children at the La Crosse site. My interest in working with children with autism started 25 years ago when my cousin was diagnosed while I was his nanny. At that time, it was rare that anyone knew what autism was when I described my job. We have come so far over the years to advocate for effective treatment for children with autism and bring awareness in general to autism.

Even with these great strides in autism awareness and access to treatment, it is common to hear someone ask, “why does he or she do that?” when observing a child with autism engage in stereotyped, ritualistic, or repetitive behavior. Stereotyped and repetitive behavior is a key feature of the diagnostic criteria of autism. Here are some quick tips for 1) responding to comments of others; 2) asking yourself why your child engages in these behaviors; and 3) developing your child’s interest in alternative activities.

  1. Responding to other’s questions or comments about your child’s behavior
  • Don’t be Surprised: Your child is a beautiful child who looks like other children his or her age, so don’t be shocked when others approach your child, but get a response they were not expecting.
  • Rehearse a Response: Have a rehearsed standard response that you can give to someone who asks why your child is engaged in that repetitive behavior. An example could be: “She does that because she is excited and doesn’t have the words to express it like you do.”
  • Be an Autism Advocate: If you want to help educate others in the community, have a little card ready to give out to others that has information about autism. Here is one example:

2. Ask yourself – “Why DOES my child do that?”

  • Understand the Why: In the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) we determine the function (or the why) of any behavior before we start determining intervention strategies. Think about what happens right before your child engages in the stereotyped behavior and what happens right after that could lead you to understand what the child is seeking from that behavior.  
  • Common reasons Why: The most common functions of behavior are: 1) to avoid or escape something; 2) to access some tangible item or activity; 3) to access social attention from others; and/or 4) to access sensory input that just feels good by yourself.
  • When the Why is “it feels good”: In ABA seeking sensory input as the “why” is known as automatic reinforcement. When your child’s stereotyped behavior meets this function, determine if the behavior is dangerous or restricting their ability to learn and engage with others. If not harmful, you can help your child request times to engage in stereotyped behavior or offer breaks throughout their daily routine to use these activities to relieve stress or regulate. When the stereotyped behavior may be dangerous or restrict their ability to access community activities and events, it is good to start looking at alternative behaviors that might meet the same function (it feels good in a similar way) but are not dangerous and could be incorporated functionally into the child’s daily routine.

3. Develop alternative activities that “feel good” in similar ways

  • Check for medical needs: It is always best to evaluate if your child engages in a repetitive behavior due to possible pain they are trying to alleviate or some other medical reason. For example, a child may repetitively bite on objects because they have tooth pain and can’t communicate that. Always check with your doctor, dentist, or medical provider first to see if you can solve the problem.
  • Matching the sensory behavior: If your medical provider can’t identify a cause, then identify what sensory input the child is seeking and find an alternative match. If your child likes to pull strings out of clothing, they may be seeking tactile input that could be directed to stinging beads or engaging in a fabric craft. Initially you could just offer appropriate fabric to engage with and then over time develop a skill that involves that same feel-good input and has a functional result (like knitting or making a necklace).
  • Try new things: Many children with autism resist something new or any change in their routine, but that does not necessarily mean they wouldn’t enjoy a new activity. It takes planful effort to try a new activity with your child. Try it when you can combine it with an activity they already enjoy. Try it multiple times before you give up on the idea. Try a variety of different activities to explore options. Break it down into small steps at a time. Follow any attempts and engagement in the new activity with a reinforcer – something the child loves – to reward trying something new. Building these new skills gives your child another enjoyable activity (something that meets their feel-good needs) that is an alternative to dangerous or restrictive stereotyped behavior and may open more opportunities to engage with others and in their community.

Here are a few websites that may get you thinking about all the possible hobbies and activities that are out there that you could try with your child. Also think about household jobs that would meet their feel-good interests. We all have favorite activities that we repeat because they feel good (running, cooking, collecting, crafting, etc.) and repetitive behaviors that we use to decrease stress (twirl hair, bounce leg, sing or hum, etc.). It is our job to help children with autism to explore all the things they might not know about, but that would match their “why”, feel good, and help them engage in the world around them more appropriately.

Related research: Schmidt JD, Falligant JM, Goetzel A, Hardisty S, Hagopian LP. Decreasing motor

stereotypy with competing stimuli and tasks: Analysis of prompted engagement and response blocking.

Behavioral Interventions. 2021;1–12.