Why Does He Do That? Dealing With Unusual Behaviours at School


One of the common features of ASD is the presence of repetitive or restricted behaviours, sometimes referred to as stereotypies. Behaviours such as hand flapping, twirling, squealing, vocal repetitions, flicking fingers in front of eyes, and spinning, sifting, sniffing or tapping objects are some of the repetitive behaviours that might be seen in a student with ASD. An obsessive interest in unvarying activities such as repetitive water play, a pre-occupation with parts of objects or pacing while singing or talking to oneself are also descriptions of repetitive behaviours and restricted interests. Sensory processing differences, anxiety, executive function deficits and boredom have been some of the explanations presented in the literature to help explain the prevalence of repetitive behaviours in ASD but it is not yet well understood why these behaviours tend to develop and prevail more often in ASD than in other disorders. A common question in schools is how to deal with these behaviours. Should efforts be made to eliminate or replace them or should they be ignored? The following tips may help determine how best to respond:

A plan to modify the behaviour or the environment is indicated if:

  • the behaviour interferes with the student’s ability to participate in learning activities
  • the behaviour draws negative or unwanted attention from peers or others, or adversely affects social relationships
  • the form, frequency or intensity of the behaviour affects the child’s health or safety
  • the behaviour interferes with the learning of others

If a decision is made to address the behaviour, the following questions need to be answered:

  • When does the behaviour occur? Is it during times of excitement or stress? Or does it occur more frequently during “down times” when there is limited structure or expectations? In the first instance, the student may engage in the behaviour to self calm. In the second instance he may do it to fill a void with a pleasurable, predictable sensory experience.
  • Does the behaviour appear to serve a specific function such as avoidance of a task, a protest, or to get attention? In this case, teaching a functionally equivalent replacement behaviour would be recommended.
  • Is the student aware of how others perceive the behaviour? If not, he may need instruction to help him understand the perspective of others prior to attempting to teach him to control or modify the behaviour in specific situations.
    Bottom line, attempting to modify repetitive behaviours should be done only when necessary, and then carefully and with compassion. Even if the behaviour is seen as a “habit” that is no longer necessary, attempts to change an entrenched behaviour will be stressful for the individual with an ASD. Any such plan should involve the entire team. Parents, behaviour interventionists, occupational therapists and speech language pathologists can provide important information and insights on how best to address a specific individual’s repetitive behaviour.

For more information on repetitive behaviours and potential modification strategies the reader is referred to the following resources:

Repetitive or Unusual Behaviours, The Watson Institute, https://www.thewatsoninstitute.org/identifying-repetitive-behaviors-interventions/

An Inside View of Autism by Temple Grandin, IRCA articles, http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/index.php?pageId=595

Functional Behaviour Assessment,Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network,


Self Management Part 2: Self Awareness, POPARD elearning lesson at https://autismoutreach.ca/self-management-part-2-self-awareness/

Social Behaviour Map: Behaviours for Learning in the Classroom by Michelle Garcia Winner. Available at www.socialthinking.com.