Why do some people with autism have restricted interests and repetitive movements?

June 26, 2018 by Andrew Cashin, The Conversation
Anxiety can drive obsessions and resistance to change. Credit: Shutterstock

As a society, we've come a long way in our understanding of the challenges people with autism face with social communication. But there is a large gap in our understanding of another cluster of behaviours that form part of an autism diagnosis: restrictive and repetitive behaviours and interests (RRBs).

These behaviours and interests appear to be made up of two dimensions. The first is a pattern of overly regulated thinking: obsessions and intense interests; a strong preference for maintaining sameness; and ritualistic or habitual patterns of , such as fiddling, or like blinking or throat clearing.

The second dimension is the rocking, twisting, flapping behaviour often associated with early depictions of severe in the media.

The origin, or function, of the behaviour in each dimension appear to be different.

And while behaviours in the first dimension are particular to autism, behaviours in the second are related to cognitive development and sensory stimulation. They are common in typically developing pre-school-age children but, when sustained past school age, may indicate an intellectual disability.

First dimension: thinking style

Autism is a behavioural diagnosis. This means it is diagnosed by recognising the cluster of behaviours and the intensity and frequency of them. However, to understand how restrictive and repetitive behaviours and interests work, it's important to understand the different thinking style associated with autism.

Contrasted with neurotypical thinkers (those without autism), people with autism have less abstract thought. They tend to be visual processors of information, with less strength in linguistic coding, or using language to explain their thoughts.

They are also less able to put themselves figuratively in other people's shoes and guess what they're thinking and feeling.

In effect, people with autism think of concrete stuff rather than the abstract self-talk related to feelings. Without a conscious effort, they're less likely to generalise and have more difficulty recognising like or similar situations. The impact is a thinking style that is not concept-based but, rather, compartmentalised.

When faced with change, the difficulty people with autism have in recognising like or similar experiences – out of their familiar thought compartment – results in . This anxiety is not labelled and, as an abstract concept, is not recognised.

The information that people with neurotypical patterns of thought take for granted, such as how people around them may be feeling and the link to expectations, is missing or dampened in people with autism.

People with autism generally have more structured thoughts than their neurotypical peers. Credit: Jacek Chabraszewski/Shutterstock

Second dimension: pushy anxiety and getting locked in

Even though people with autism are more likely to think about concrete stuff rather than abstract feelings, anxiety still exists and, if not recognised, continues unmediated in the background.

Anxiety is a very pushy feeling. Think of the cave people and the flight or fight response. In more recent times, think of the thing that is created by deadlines and pushes you into activity when your threshold level has been reached.

When we recognise anxiety, we can get action-oriented, or we can choose to soothe the anxiety. If anxiety is operating in the background unrecognised, it continues to push and gain momentum.

For people with autism, this can push to obsessions and intense interests or provide the fuel for extraordinary efforts to resist change.

Excess anxiety fuel may also leak into habitual motor activity, such as fiddling or motor tics, and ritualistic behaviours. Or it can push the person into behaviours and thinking that operates to filter out the noisy demands of the world, like obsessive behaviour and rituals.

This can turn into a cycle of increasing anxiety. Picture this scenario: a new after-school routine triggers anxiety in a young person with autism. They filter this out by becoming increasingly obsessed with gaming. It's clear they're not responding to the demands of the new after-school routine, so the pressure – and therefore, the anxiety – increases. So too does the filtering (gaming). As this continues, the young person is drifting further from the behaviour needed, while getting locked in to the obsession.

This can be compounded by not recognising the feelings and expectations of those around, prompting intense conversations and yet more anxiety.

Supportive structures

Emerging research shows the chance of getting locked into these behaviours increases when routine structures of work, school and family decline.

As the person's world shrinks, the space left from these externally imposed structures can be taken up with restrictive and repetitive behaviours and interests. This is when the risk of getting "locked in" to these filtering behaviours increases.

If anxiety levels are elevated, the externally imposed structures are down, and the person has a history of getting locked in, it's time to get expert intervention. Specialist intervention can effectively reduce the person's anxiety and provide a scaffold of support by increasing their structured routine.

Explore further: Rumination leads to problems in boys with autism

Related Stories

Rumination leads to problems in boys with autism

April 3, 2018
Boys with autism are more prone to develop physical complaints, depression and aggressive behaviour. Psychologists at Leiden University have discovered that this is mainly related to rumination. Publication in the Journal ...

Psychologists develop first adult self-assessment for repetitive behaviors in autism

August 6, 2015
Psychologists from Cardiff University have developed the first self-assessment test designed to help clinicians diagnose autism in adults.

Study examines brain activity and anxiety symptoms in youth with autism spectrum disorder

December 6, 2017
The error-related negativity (ERN) is a brain signal response to errors that is thought to reflect threat sensitivity and has been implicated in anxiety disorders in individuals without autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A new ...

How it feels to be diagnosed with autism later in life

March 7, 2018
"He is wired differently to you and me, this child of mine. He doesn't like loud noises, or dark spaces, or strangers touching his head". These are the first lines from a poem a mother penned about her son 11-year-old son ...

Adults with autism see interests as strengths, career paths

February 1, 2017
Adults on the autism spectrum see their interests as possible fields of study and career paths, as well as ways to mitigate anxiety, finds a study by NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Social phobia linked to autism and schizophrenia

December 11, 2017
New Swinburne research shows that people who find social situations difficult tend to have similar brain responses to those with schizophrenia or autism.

Recommended for you

Scientists reveal drumming helps schoolchildren diagnosed with autism

September 14, 2018
Drumming for 60 minutes a week can benefit children diagnosed with autism and supports learning at school, according to a new scientific study.

Overlapping copy number variations underlie autism and schizophrenia in Japanese patients

September 11, 2018
Common genetic variants may underlie autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia across human populations, according to a study appearing September 11th in the journal Cell Reports. In line with previous studies in Caucasians, ...

New biomarker panel could accelerate autism diagnoses

September 6, 2018
Investigators at the UC Davis MIND Institute and NeuroPointDX, a division of Stemina Biomarker Discovery, have identified a group of blood metabolites that could help detect some children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ...

Depression strikes nearly one in five young adults with autism: study

August 31, 2018
(HealthDay)—Depression affects almost 20 percent of young adults with autism, new research shows, a rate that's more than triple that seen in the general population.

Kids with autism learn, grow with the 'social robot'

August 22, 2018
Robots may hold the keys to social success for kids with autism.

First biomarker evidence of DDT-autism link

August 16, 2018
A study of more than 1 million pregnancies in Finland reports that elevated levels of a metabolite of the banned insecticide DDT in the blood of pregnant women are linked to increased risk for autism in the offspring. An ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.