For some these are just toys – for me it is a breakthrough

Seeing my passage filled with “ponies” is a sight for sore eyes. Many would see it as sad because my daughter is a teenager and “why is she still playing with toys?” BUT for us – the sight is a welcome change, a new lease on present buying and something different to listen to on a daily basis.

Restrictive and repetitive behaviors is a hallmark feature of Autism Spectrum Disorder. It simply means the presence of restrictive and repetitive behaviors, interests, and activities. Autists may engage in stereotypical or repetitive motor movements (like flapping of hand or lining up items), they may have restrictive interests, a need for sameness or they may struggle to cope with change.

For us our autistic daughter’s restrictive and repetitive behavior meant 10 years of animals! Well I guess “life like animal toys” would be a better description. If it did not look like a real life animal it would not be accepted into our home or life.

At first is was the big 5, then it grew to horses and from there domestic animals particularly dogs where allowed but farm animals and insects are still a no-go. Bugs and beetle activities, puzzles or games would also just not work.

Step two came in when she moved from animal figurines to animal related puzzles. That was a HUGE step in our daughters development and she soon mastered puzzle building even though she was not willing to even try for the first 10 years of her life.

Madi’s restrictive behavior has meant that Simba and the Lion King has featured in our home for about 8 years now, we had a year of Madagascar and Ice Age and then about two years ago she met her new best friends – the characters from Secret Life of Pets.

The one common denominator was no “fantasy” items. No pink or purple ponies, no talking CARS or dolls.

It may have taken her 13 years to accept these ponies into her space but it was worth the wait because she is now exploring fantasy, she can identify them (non verbally) by name and she plays with them often. The ponies have also opened her mind to other fantasy toys and at the age of 13 she is now able to engage in a much wider variety of activities then we ever though possible.

So how can you help your autistic child with restrictive behavior?

  • don’t ever stop trying to build your child’s interests even when it does not go well at the offset;
  • Introduce new activities, routes and change into your child’s daily schedule even if it is easier not to;
  • Teach new tasks to your child on a step-by-step basic and make sure you give clear instruction;
  • Get involved in the activities with your child – don’t think that buying a new toys will automatically mean that your autistic child will take interest in it;
  • Allow your child to explore the new toy in their own way;
  • Know what repetitive behaviors your child needs to help them regulate and what are just “habit” or a loop and don’t be to quick to try and change them just because you think “flapping” is not socially acceptable. If “flapping” or “spinning” helps your child and they like lining things up then accept these behaviors as part of who your child is;
  • Be consistent as children’s with autism spectrum disorder have a hard time applying what they’ve learned in one setting to other settings (generalization)

And last but not least – be patient, be observant and aware because you can learn to pick up on the nonverbal cues that your child uses to communicate. By paying attention to the sounds they make, their facial expressions and or their gestures you will soon learn what they are feeling or need even when they can not physically tell you.

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Ilse Kilian-Ross

Ilse Kilian-Ross is the owner of Amazing K, a registered ECD and Partial Care Facility in Johannesburg. Amazing K is a private adhd school, autism school and therapy centre for children from age 2 - 6 years where learners receive the best of both the schooling and therapy world. The autism school offers Individualized Education Programs, Speech- and Augmentive Alternative Communication (AAC) therapy as well as a full and adapted Academic Curriculum.