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Care and Feeding of Your Aspie: Part 60 – Repetitive Behaviors and Meaningless Ritual

I knew someone who compulsively sharpened pencils

According to studies, Autistic Spectrum Individuals tend to engage in ritual behavior. 

I have found many studies on the subject but the abstract on THIS ONE states it clearly and succinctly.

“Ritual behaviour, while often considered as nonpurposeful or problematic, can also be regarded as functional behaviour for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). This study investigated the types and characteristics of ritual behaviour in children with ASD…”

So, there ya have it – ritual behaviors, wile problematic can be regarded as functional behavior. Excellent… We have a psychological behavior model that is justified and functional behavior… Now here’s the question… What is ritual behavior.

From a psychological standpoint, ritual behavior is:

“a technical sense for a repetitive behavior systematically used by a person to neutralize or prevent anxiety; it is a symptom of obsessive–compulsive disorder.”

There it is… Again, ritual is explained as a way for the brain to relieve anxiety.

Autistic Spectrum Disorders are often noted for having obsessive tendencies and interests. As you know, we often refer to these as “special interests.” However, there is a lot more to it than that. It may not be a special interest, but instead something we need to do… and in some cases, it is just some thing we do.

What does this mean for you and your Autist?

It means that when we get stressed or experience anxiety (and this source can be from any source – those I have discussed previously or others.), we can engage in ritualistic behavior to alleviate this stress and anxiety.

Some examples:
Due to post traumatic disorder, my sister has debilitating nightmares. It makes getting any rest difficult, which adds to her stress levels and anxiety and will often result in a fear response as a part of her normal morning function. In the first 8 minutes after awaking, three things need to happen… she has to brush her teeth, get a cup of coffee, and do some rudimentary stretching (due to catastrophic injuries when we were young). It is not the caffeine in the coffee that she needs, it is the ritual of making the coffee. As she states – “There are more efficient ways to get caffeine; pills, energy drinks, or soda.” Often, that cup of coffee is neglected after only a sip is taken. If this ritual is not observed, her mental equilibrium is shot for the entire day.

My sister and I both grew up in the city. As such, our brains developed with the sounds of the city and it is burned into the neural pathways permanently. When we lived in Arabi, LA – the sound levels were perfect… we were a block from the National Guard Base, 3 blocks from the river with river traffic, half a mile from the Domino Sugar Factory and 3 miles from several fuel refineries. The sound levels were perfect and the smell, while most people thought it was horrible… smelled like the city. It was perfect. Then… We moved to uptown New Orleans. It is a quiet neighborhood, little in the way of traffic or children (in spite of being a few blocks from a school). It is quiet… way too quiet… So, our house always has music, or a TV or the like going… just for background noise. To sleep, once we moved here, I need a white noise generator.

Netflix is constantly going, watching the same shows over and over – as part of the ritual. Scrubs, Stargate SG-1, Farscape, and Futurama… Constantly… even though we can quote them like Bill Murray in the movie: Groundhog Day.

It’s annoying to our NT companions, but they are accustomed to it.

For me, when stressed… I play Diablo 3… I have beaten the game on all modes, gotten some awesome gear, and can play through it with my eyes closed. One of my roommates plays with me because he enjoys seeing how massively obscene the amount of destruction can be.

We do these things and they can be annoying to be around us when we do. But I haven’t address why we do it.

Like with so many things, it is a way to relieve psychological pressure. When an NT encounters a situation that throws them off balance the cognitive dissonance mechanic within their brains counters it with distraction. Aspies and Autists do not seem to have this functionality to their Dissonance mechanic. I believe this has to do with the obsessive nature of Autistic Spectrum dissonance…

We don’t have these. I wish I did. 

Since we lack the shades of grey in want, desire and dissonance, a dissonant event will just feedback… As such, we have to distract ourselves from it all… And that is where ritual comes in. Our rituals key into neural pathways that that have been etched into our brains… When confronted by a dissonant situation, we are able to switch modes by engaging in ritual. The dissonant even will take second fiddle once we engage in the ritual. Basically, we are forcing our minds to function along those burned in neural pathways… Since the brain knows how to handle the ritualistic behavior… the dissonance can be ignored and (in most cases) will fade as the subconscious mind processes the causes of the dissonant event.

So, while it may be annoying to you as the NT, it is necessary for your Aspie. I suggest getting into it… Hell, we can always use someone to play the Wizard in Diablo 3.

The Wizard is to the right… see why no one wants to play it?

Images in this issue SHAMELESSLY stolen from the following sources:

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1 thought on “Care and Feeding of Your Aspie: Part 60 – Repetitive Behaviors and Meaningless Ritual”

  1. Thought you’d want to know that the link for this in the index goes to I Just Don’t Like Him (#59) instead of this entry on Rituals and Repetitive behaviour. In case it’s a thing that can be fixed? I hope so. Still loving your blog.

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