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Autistic Perseveration

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Autistic Perseveration

By: Naomi Eichorn MS, CCC/SLP

This article was written by Naomi Eichorn for Fun and Function ( and is reprinted here with express permission of Aviva Weiss, the president and co-founder of Fun and Function LLC. The article originally appeared at the Fun and Function website

NB: This article is written for the parents of children who have Autism and related problems. We publish it here because we know that therapists like to give their client's caregivers as much information as possible.

Autistic Perseveration

Perseverative behavior is a well known tendency among individuals with autism and similar disorders along the austistic spectrum. Repetitive movements, echolalic speech patterns, rigidity of thought, obsessive interests, and ritualistic behaviors have in fact become hallmark features of autistic disorders and are often used for diagnostic purposes. As clinicians, educators, or parents, an important question to consider is what purpose these behaviors may serve and how they may be understood in the context of a child’s developing personality and general approach to life.

Cognitive science literature shows that in fact, the tendency to perseverate is observed not only in autistic individuals but in most normal adults along a continuum. In one very early study of behavioral rigidity (Morrow, 1946) older adults between ages 58-73 showed very extreme forms of perseveration during a card sorting task with changing rules. All of these subjects persisted in an unsuccessful rule despite repeated negative feedback over many trials. This work suggests that as people mature and experience more of life, they develop routines that often provide a certain sense of familiarity and comfort. These same habits, however, may also hardwire the brain to respond to situations in a predictable manner that does not leave room for new approaches or perspectives. A more recent study (Diamond & Kirkham, 2005) demonstrates that even younger adults show a tendency for “attentional inertia,” as revealed by longer reaction times for all responses that required a change in perspective compared to responses that followed an identical pattern. In other words, there is a normal cognitive bias toward our previous thoughts, behaviors, or responses -which explains the difficulty many normal adults have in seeing multiple perspectives to a question or problem, it is hard to adapt to a novel approach.

In a more general sense, most normal individuals experience discomfort with changes in routine. We all have different levels of tolerance for change and learn to appreciate our needs and work around them in order to adapt smoothly to the constant flux that is life. Perhaps we surround ourselves with friends during a difficult transition, bring familiar mementos when moving to a new place, or comfort ourselves with favorite books, foods, or music when encountering an unfamiliar situation that is threatening.

Appreciating the resistance to change that is in ourselves can help us relate to children who seem exceptionally rigid and who become agitated by transitions that are a part of everyday life. Be sympathetic to their reactions to unpredictability in their environments and anticipate that these situations will be challenging. Scripts that detail what the individual can expect are extremely helpful and can be used as a basis for problem solving and brainstorming (e.g., What time is our flight? How long will we be on the plane? What can we do if the flight is delayed?). Prepare comfort toys, books, or routines for a difficult situation or for other changes that may be overwhelming for the child or adult. Most importantly, remember that humans are creatures of habit and that the tendency toward perseveration is natural, use your own life experiences to develop an appreciation of the challenge of change and to identify means of coping that have been helpful for you and that can be used to help others.

This entry was written by Naomi Eichorn MS, CCC/SLP and posted on August 16, 2008 at 10:43 pm and filed under academic readiness, autism, autistic, child development, children, education, play, special education, special needs, speech therapy, therapy. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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About Naomi Eichorn. She has worked in a variety of settings, including acute care, outpatient, educational, and private practice, treating communication and swallowing disorders in both children and adults. She currently works at a private practice specializing in the treatment of children and adolescents with language and learning difficulties. She is a graduate of Brooklyn College, where she earned a master’s degree in speech-language pathology and is currently working toward her PhD in speech and hearing sciences with a concentration in cognitive neuroscience.

We thank Aviva Weiss, the president and co-founder of Fun and Function LLC for allowing us to reprint the article which originally appeared on their web site.

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