One of my least favorite rides at state fairs and amusement parks is the loop-the-loop of roller coasters.  Something about all that going upside down and back again over and over just makes my stomach too queasy to fully enjoy the ride.  When I do get on them, it’s more as a challenge to overcome my fear of big roller coasters.  Now, if it’s a ride that has more fast side twists, rolls, and turns?  That’s more my speed.


But in life we don’t always get to pick the type of ride we get on.  Take those with Obsessive Compulsive disorder (OCD), for example.  They daily experience that loop-the-loop in their mind several times a day.  Normally, when you experience an emotional memory, it takes a ride along the Limbic system, meandering through the hippocampus, hypothalamus, amygdala, and olfactory bulb, among other structures.


The hippocampus is responsible for setting memories, the thalamus is the center of a giant relay system that helps regulates all kinds of brain functions, and the aptly named hypothalamus, which sits under the thalamus, is a mini relay station between the hippocampus and the thalamus.  The amygdala is kinds of like the seat of the emotions.


In normal conditions a memory takes one ride between the stations of this roller coaster, and once it’s reached its destination, it gets off (or on depending where it is in the que).  Now with OCD, it’s like the memory, or passenger in this little analogy, never gets off the loop and keeps riding the same roller coaster again and again.  It’s like it’s stuck in the loop-the-loop from, well, you know.


This is kind of what I think about with kiddos with special needs that get stuck in a loop of behavior, especially when either requesting things they really want (snack please, snack please, SNACK PLEASE) or struggling with dealing with a situation they really don’t want (ever heard of stimming???)  While I love all the new words my little bean has been saying in the last few weeks, the perseverate ive nature with which they sometimes come out of his little mouth…well, that I love not so much (lol).

Now, I was recently reading about the difference between the aut-ism and the other –isms that a person may be displaying in Jeanne Beard’s Autism and the Rest of Us.  Meaning, we often have to separate the traits that are likely consistent with the information processing difficulties commonly seen in Autism from the various personality traits, quirks, and idiosyncrasies we all have.  While falling into perseverative loops of thinking and behavior can be an issue in a variety of special needs and health concerns, we all have our peccadillos we display when we don’t get our way.

I have to tell you, it can be difficult to ascertain when undesirable behavior is a result of an involuntary and atypical thinking pattern, or if it is the result of a more neurotypical desire to assert independence and control.  How can we tell the difference and what can we do to address it?  Well, I use the A-B-C, or Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence approach and see if there is a discernable Antecedent prior the Behavior in question and follow with a, hopefully, reasonable Consequence.


If shortly after refusing food, my son is having a meltdown (Behavior) after asking for pop (Antecedent), it’s reasonable to assume he’s not hungry and doesn’t have an unmet need, rather he wants the pop that at this time he cannot have.  The Consequence from me is to make as much eye contact as I can and state in a calm but firm voice, “No, pop.”  I may also add “First, eat-eat, then pop.”

If the meltdown continues, I ignore the behavior so as to extinguish it.  The first few times are painful, but after a while, this new behavior pattern is learned and my son adapts to the new pattern.


Honestly, even if my son’s meltdown and perseverative requests are a result of an atypical thinking pattern, my response is still fairly consistent, unless there is a safety risk.  Aggressive and Self-Injurious Behavior is not ignored (which is why it can be so hard to extinguish because almost any attention reinforces it).  With aggression and SIB, I really search for the antecedent and address solutions that will meet the need and present a solution.  For example, biting may be a result of need for deep pressure.  There are much safer and sanitary ways to preemptively provide someone with deep pressure than their teeth.  Look at the behavior, see what it is trying to “say,” and go from there.  It’s not easy, but it’s definitely worth it.


Next Steps:


Here are some questions for you to consider:

  • Are you or your children dealing with any perseverative behaviors? If so, how do you handle them?
  • How are these behaviors opportunities for growth in disguise?


Want to Learn More?

Bergina Isbell, MD is a Mayo Clinic trained and Board Certified Psychiatrist specializing in the clinical treatment of patients with history of Special Needs and Trauma.  She is the mother of two children with special needs, including a son with a diagnosis of Autism.  She serves as a consultant and Autism coach for those who want to transform their lives by developing a growth-promoting mindset.

To watch the interview by Dr. Bergina of Jeanne Beard, author of Autism and the Rest of Us, register at https://bit.ly/autisminterview.

To join the Autism Alignment Movement and get access to more live interviews, visit www.TheAutismStrategist.com.


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