Autism: Restricted and Repetitive Behaviors

Date Last Revised: November 7, 2013

Date Published: April 2, 2007

Individuals with autism exhibit "being stuck" in a variety of ways: performing the same act again and again, repeatedly uttering the same phrase, insisting on the same routine or ritual, or obsessing on a favorite topic.1 Speaking of one of the boys in his 1943 study of autism, Dr. Leo Kanner remarked:

"But the child’s noises and motions and all of his performances are as monotonously repetitious as are his verbal utterances. There is a marked limitation in the variety of his spontaneous activities. The child’s behavior is governed by an anxiously obsessive desire for the maintenance of sameness that nobody but the child himself may disrupt on rare occasions. Changes of routine, of furniture arrangement, of a pattern, of the order in which everyday acts are carried out, can drive him to despair."2

The nature of the restricted, repetitive behavior varies depending on developmental level as well as degree of disability, from stereotyped motor movements, such as hand-flapping, to behavior such as lining up or ordering objects, to preoccupation with a certain area of interest.3 Across different levels of ability and autism severity, there is often an insistence on sameness and a tendency for upset — sometimes extreme upset — when the person with autism encounters an unwelcome change to a pattern or routine.

Additional Resources: 


  1. Carcani-Rathwell, I., Rabe-Hasketh, S., & Santosh, P.J. (2006). Repetitive and stereotyped behaviors in pervasive developmental disorders. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47(6), 573-581.  Abstract
  2. Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nervous Child, 2, 217-250. (pg. 245)
  3. American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., rev.). Washington DC: Author. (Pg. 71)
These archived articles were originally published as part of the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) research project. 
The project is closed and no longer accepting participants.

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