Autism spectrum disorder is characterized by:
- Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction as demonstrated by
- deficits in social-emotional reciprocity,
- deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, and
- deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships
- Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities as demonstrated by at least two of the following:
- Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech
- Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns or verbal nonverbal behavior
- Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus
- Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment
- Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period
- Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning
- These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) or global developmental delay
These criteria for ASD are from the DSM-V diagnostic criteria as reported by Autism Speaks.
Some examples of restricted or repetitive behaviors in individuals with autism include things like:
- doing the same motor behavior over and over again
- skin-picking or biting skin often
- lining up toys
- difficulty with changes in a routine
- having limited foods that a person is willing to consume
For individuals with autism, resistance to change may be, in part, due to the way that these individuals process changes in their environment. According to Fisher, et. al. (2019), people with autism who display difficulties with change may process changes in their environment differently than the general population.
This difference in processing is a difference in how the brain observes, assesses, and responds to the environment as compared to typically developing individuals. Therefore, when social stimuli or environmental factors are unable to change the restrictive or repetitive behavior of an individual with autism, it may be due to the behavior actually being maintained by automatic reinforcement rather than maintained by social contingencies – or being maintained by a function of access, escape, or attention. More specifically, the restrictive behavior may be due to automatic negative reinforcement. The behavior may help the individual to avoid unpleasant sensations and experiences, such as the discomfort that may arise from changes in their environment.