The DSM-5 criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) include restricted and repetitive behavior (RRB) as a core diagnostic feature, together with the domain of social communication and social interaction deficits. RRBs include: (a) stereotyped or repetitive speech, motor movements, or use of objects; (b) excessive adherence to routines, ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior, or excessive resistance to change; (c) highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus; and (d) hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Studies of RRBs have identified two sub-groups; one comprising repetitive sensory and motor behaviors (RSMB), such as repetitive hand or finger movements and rocking, and the other consisting of behaviors such as narrow interests, rigid routines, and rituals routines, which are collectively referred to as insistence on sameness (IS) (Bishop et al., 2013; Bishop, Richler, & Lord, 2006; Richler, Huerta, Bishop, & Lord, 2010).
Research indicates that repetitive behaviors may be among the earliest-emerging signs of autism (Wolff et al., 2014). There is also evidence to suggest that different types of RRB may be predictive of co-occurring mental health problems. For example, autistic children who demonstrate high levels of ritualistic and sameness behavior have been found to show more severe symptoms of anxiety and depression (Stratis & Lecavalier, 2013). Parents of children and teens also report that RRBs are one of the most challenging features of autism due to their significant interference with daily life. They can significantly impede learning and socialization by decreasing the likelihood of positive interactions with peers and adults. Given the importance of RRBs as a core feature of ASD, professionals should give increased attention to the assessment and presence of these behaviors, and their impact on the adaptability and psychological well-being of children and youth with ASD (Stratis & Lecavalier, 2013).
Rating scales and questionnaires are the most frequently used methods of measuring RRBs. For example, measures such as the Autism Spectrum Rating Scales (ASRS; Goldstein & Naglieri, 2010) and Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS-2; Constantino & Gruber, 2012) incorporate scales and treatment clusters assessing stereotypical behaviors, sensory sensitivity, and highly restricted interests characteristic of ASD. There are also specialized parent/caregiver questionnaires available that focus solely on restricted and repetitive behaviors and provide a more complete understanding of the impact of RRB factors on adaptive functioning. Of these questionnaires, the most commonly used are the Repetitive Behavior Scale-Revised (RBS-R; Bodfish, Symons, Parker, & Lewis, 2000) and the Repetitive Behavior Questionnaire-2 (RBQ-2; Leekam et al., 2007). Both cover a wide range of repetitive behaviors and were designed as a quantitative index of RRB, rather than relying exclusively on the above referenced broad-based ASD measures to assess RRBs.
The RBS-R is a parent report of repetitive behaviors in children, adolescents, and adults with ASD. It consists of 43 items and includes the following subscales: Stereotyped Behavior, Self-Injurious Behavior, Compulsive Behavior, Ritualistic Behavior, Sameness Behavior, and Restricted Behavior. For each subscale, the number of items endorsed is computed as well as the severity score for the subscale. On the last question, respondents are asked to consider all of the behaviors described in the questionnaire, and provide a global severity rating. The RBS-R has been reported to have adequate psychometric properties, and acceptable reliability and validity for each subscale (Bodfish et al., 2000; Boyd et al., 2010; Esbensen, Seltzer, Lam, & Bodfish, 2009; Gabriels, Cuccaro, Hill, Ivers, & Goldson, 2005; Lam & Aman, 2007).
The RBQ-2 is also a parent-completed 20-item questionnaire suitable for children (with or without autism) of all ages. Item responses fall into four groups which correspond to four specific areas: Repetitive Motor Movements, Rigidity/Adherence to Routine, Preoccupation with Restricted Interests, and Unusual Sensory Interests. Questionnaire scores can be added to provide a Total Repetitive Behaviors Score. As with previous research on RRBs, two clusters can be identified: RSMB, which corresponds to repetitive motor movements and unusual sensory interests, and IS, which corresponds to adherence to routine and restricted interests. The reliability and validity of the RBQ-2 has been supported with children and adolescents (Lidstone et al., 2014).
Restricted and repetitive behavior (RRB) is a core diagnostic feature of autism. Although these behaviors present a major barrier to learning and social adaptation, most of the research on ASD has focused on social and communication deficits, with less attention given to the RRB symptom domain (Boyd, McDonough, & Bodfish, 2012; Leekam, Prior, & Uljarevic, 2011). Further research and is needed to better understand their development, expression, assessment, and related clinical features (e.g., cognitive ability, adaptive functioning, comorbid disorders) (Stratis & Lecavalier, 2013). For example, it is important to understand how RRBs in typical development vary across time in order to compare atypical trajectories in children with ASD across intellectual and adaptive levels. Future research should also be directed to understanding the RRB subtypes and their relationship to comorbid symptoms such as anxiety and depression.
Compared to the relatively large number of evidence-based, behavioral interventions for the social communication and interaction symptoms of ASD, RRBs are less likely to be included in intervention planning. There is a need to develop evidence-based interventions that are effective in treating the continuum of repetitive behaviors in order to provide support in this domain and improve RRBs before these behaviors become well-established (Leekam et al., 2011). In terms of assessment, measures such as the RBS-R and RBQ-2 should be included in a comprehensive developmental assessment to provide a more complete understanding of specific RRBs and their impact on adaptive functioning, as well as inform intervention selection (see Wilkinson for a description of assessment domains and recommended measures). Lastly, it is important to provide parents with education and training on how to effectively address these inflexible and repetitive patterns of behaviors that affect their everyday lives.
Adapted from Wilkinson, L. A. (2017). A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Key References and Further Reading
Key References and Further Reading
Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic
and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.) Washington, DC:
Bishop, S.L., Hus,
V., Duncan, A., Huerta, M., Gotham, K., Pickles, A., Kreiger, A., Buja, A.,
Lund, S., Lord, C. (2013). Subcategories of restricted and repetitive behaviors
in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and
Developmental Disorders, 43, 1287-97. doi: 10.1007/s10803-012-1671-0
Symons, F.J., Parker, D.E., & Lewis, M.H. (2000). Varieties of repetitive
behavior in autism: Comparisons to mental retardation. Journal of Autism and
Developmental Disorders, 30, 237–243.
Boyd, B. A., McDonough, S. G., & and Bodfish, J. W. (2012). Evidence-based behavioral interventions for repetitive behaviors in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(6), 1236-1248. doi:10.1007/s10803-011-1284-z
Esbensen, A. J., Seltzer, M., Lam, K., & Bodfish, J. W. (2009). Age-related differences in restricted repetitive behaviors in autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39, 57–66. doi:10.1007/s10803-008-0599-x
Lam, K. S. L. & M. G. Aman (2007). The Repetitive Behavior Scale-Revised: Independent validation in individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37(5): 855-866.
Leekam, S, Tandos, J., McConachie, H., Meins, E., Parkinson, K., Wright, C…Le Couteur, A. (2007). Repetitive behaviours in typically developing 2-year-olds. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 48, 11, 1131-1138.
Leekam, S. R., Prior, M. R., & Uljarevic, M. (2011). Restricted and repetitive behaviors in autism spectrum disorders: A review of research in the last decade. Psychological Bulletin, 137, 562–593. doi: 10.1037/a0023341
Stratis, E. A., & Lecavalier, L. (2013). Restricted and repetitive behaviors and psychiatric symptoms in youth with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7, 757–766.
Wolff, J.J., Botteron, K. N., Dager, S.R., Elison, J. T., Estes, A. M., Gu, H…Piven, J. (2014). Longitudinal patterns of repetitive behavior in toddlers with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55, 945-53. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12207
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, NCSP is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, chartered psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. He is author of the award-winning books, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools and Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. He is also editor of a best-selling text in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools. His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).
© 2018 Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD
© 2018 Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD