What to Do

I am about to make a horrible statement for a person with a Ph.D., that is “What follows is based on my personal experience over several years working with children who engaged in repetitive behaviors, also called stereotypic, self-stimulatory or ‘autistic-like’ behaviors. Some of these recommendations are based on books by psychologists working with children with Autism, not researchers.”

1. Don’t try to get rid of a behavior unless you replace it with something else. Rocking, flapping his hands or flipping her fingers in front of her face may be the way a child deals with stress or distracts herself from noise, bright lights or other sensory overload. This may be the best behavior the child can think of.

2. Try to replace an unacceptable behavior with a more usual one. This is an area where Applied Behavior Analysis works well. In brief, you try to see what usually brings about the behavior. Let’s take hand waving, for example. You may find a child flaps his hands back and forth when he is sitting alone, when he is in a large group, when there is a lot of noise. In that case, look at when he does the least – when he is in the bathtub, when he is watching TV and when he lays down for a nap. In preschool, water play is a usual activity. See if he flaps his hands when it is time for water play. If not, try to include that in the daily schedule. If there is some activity that is accompanied by lots of hand flapping, for example, Circle Time, gently guide the child over to the Water Play area or an area where other children are watching a video. Eventually, try getting one other child to sit with him and watch the video or play next to him.

3. Related to this, try to find a behavior similar to the one you want to replace. A child who is flapping his hands (an abnormal behavior) may be more easily convinced to replace this behavior with moving his hands in the water, holding a rubber duck, than a child whose repetitive behavior is rocking. If a child’s repetitive behavior is rocking, you might try to get him to sit in a swing instead. Again, if Circle Time, being around many children seems to be a trigger, your next step is to get another child to swing next to him.