Autism and Asking Repetitive Questions
Many parents, carers and people that live or work with children with Autism will be familiar with the experience of a child who seems intent on persistently asking repetitive questions. Being unable to understand why your child is asking repetitive questions or what it is you can do to both help them and at the same time provide yourself with some respite from this repetitive behavior can often become both stressful and frustrating for all concerned.
Autism and repetitive behaviors often go hand in hand so learning to understand why your child is asking repetitive questions is critical to both increasing your natural tolerance to this type of repetitive behavior and in helping to direct you toward the best or most appropriate strategies to help in your particular situation.
What are Repetitive Questions?
In relation to repetitive questions and Autism, we will generally consider repetitive questions to be any questions which are repeated over and over again, usually in the same tone and manner and frequently within seconds or minutes of each other. Depending on the context and history of an individual’s situation and indeed the responses being provided by those being questioned at a given instance, the repetitive questions may persist for longer or shorter periods of time. Engaging in repetitive behaviors such as asking repetitive questions may also be dependent on various contextual factors such as location, time of day, who is present, what is being requested or expected of the individual etc. It’s always a good idea to try to get into the habit of keeping data on your observations in order to help you identify any potential patterns in your child’s repetitive behaviors.
Repetitive questions may continue for days, weeks, months or indeed years. The intensity and manner in which children with autism may pose questions will also vary depending on the individual concerned and how typical the responses being given are for that particular individual at a given time e.g. if a child has usually found answers or responses to be forthcoming and suddenly they become less so then the urgency and intensity of the repetitive questioning will likely increase.
With regard to children with Autism and asking repetitive questions we are also usually referring to questions that have already been and/or are being actively answered repeatedly and to which the child in question already knows and indeed expects and desires the exact same answer or response to be provided on each and every occasion that a repetitive question is posed.
Asking Repetitive Questions
Why do children with Autism ask repetitive questions?
There are numerous possible reasons why children with Autism might engage in asking repetitive questions. Like any behaviour the function of repetitive questions can vary both from one individual to another and from one time or situation to another. Learning to better understand the function/s repetitive questioning serve for your child will allow you to respond most appropriately to your child’s needs and provide you the best prospect of reducing or eliminating this repetitive behavior completely. It is worth remembering that repetitiveness is commonly something which comes with the territory with regard to Autism and many children with Autism simply enjoy the predictability of knowing the answers. Children with Autism often seek out and enjoy predictability and repetition across all aspects of their lives and repetitive questions are merely another expression of this particular preference or tendency. The following are some of the more common reasons why children with autism ask repetitive questions.
- An attempt to communicate: Children with Autism may have the desire to communicate but not yet have the skills to either initiate or maintain a verbal interaction or conversation. Sometimes in a desire to express something that's new or too difficult to put into words the child may substitute by asking a more familiar question instead. Even children with good language skills may experience times when their ability to communicate is lessened due to stress or heightened emotion, both of which can result in them, at times, relying on less flexible forms of communication such as repetitive questioning. Engaging in repetitive behaviors such as repetitive questioning is also an effective way of avoiding other questions or verbal exchanges that are outside one’s comfort zone
- A need for reassurance:All children but children with Autism in particular have a strong need for routine, predictability and smooth transitions from place to place or activity to activity and many children with Autism do not cope well with uncertainty or change. Unfortunately there are often many aspects of daily life that can be anxiety provoking and are outside of their control. When things do not go as expected and when things become unpredictable in the daily experience of a child with Autism they may seek solace within the predictability and control provided by engaging in repetitive behaviors such as asking repetitive questions. In essence asking repetitive questions becomes a form of coping strategy for times of stress and uncertainty, they achieve this by using repetitive questioning to impose their own sense of predictability and stability into their experience. When others respond to the repetitive questions as desired it helps to provide a sense of safety or comfort (albeit fleeting on occasion hence the need for repetition) for the child concerned. This type of repetitive questioning is sometimes evidenced for instance toward the end of the school day when a child may repeatedly ask “What time am I going home?” or “What time will Daddy collect me?” etc. Perhaps the child wants everything to be exactly on schedule or is eager to get home or remembers once when a parent did not turn up on time and their routine was disrupted. The concern that any one of these or countless other events may or may not come to pass is often what gives rise to some kind of repetitive behavior in these situations
- Enthusiasm and Over-Stimulation: Many children with Autism have certain topics or special interests which they can become extremely passionate about and focussed upon. Asking repetitive questions can be an effective way to control the direction of a conversation; provide an opportunity to demonstrate one’s wealth of knowledge on a particular area or topic of interest or simply a way for an individual to persevere on their favored topic. This enthusiasm for discussing and asking questions relating to topics of special interest can also cause some children to become overly stimulated which in turn can increase the intensity by which they continue to pursue their repetitive questions on a particular topic. Who doesn’t like to talk about what really interests them? Combine that with an oft decreased awareness or concern for the unwritten rules of typical social interaction and it’s not too surprising that some children with Autism engage in this type of repetitive behavior
- Other common reasons: Some other common explanations for this type of repetitive behavior include such things as a wish to be social; a need for attention; an attempt to mimic the conversations of others or a means of escaping, delaying or avoiding less favored situations, demands, requests or expectations. Remember that this is not an exhaustive list and the same repetitive behavior (in this case ‘engaging in repetitive questioning’) may serve different functions for different individuals and even for the same individuals at different times
For tips and strategies on coping with and reducing repetitive questions check Autism and Repetitive Questions Part 2: Reducing Repetitive Questions
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Proven and straight forward strategies to help those working and caring for children with Autism to cope with and to reduce the need for children with Autism to engage in repetitive questioning
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Rob Winters (author) on October 04, 2013:
Thank you for reading my hub so thoroughly and taking the time to comment. It's always most satisfying to get positive feedback from people with direct experience of the subject matter of an article and it's always encouraging to hear when people can relate to the specifics of what you've written so i really appreciate your feedback here.
Your insights into your brothers repetitive questions highlight how there's no better teacher than experience, particularly if you have an open mind and a desire to understand. You're so right about the 'little things' than can be easily overlooked by the rest of us but yet very significant to the individual concerned. Just being aware of and accepting of the fact that sometimes there's a reason (even if it eludes us) can be helpful in itself.
Thanks for sharing your experiences with your brother and best of luck to you and your family. Glad you found this useful.
Jess Brazeau from Canada on October 04, 2013:
Very well written Hub, Rob..
My eight year old brother is autistic, and he engages in this kind of behaviour daily.. From much reading about the subject, as well as from the many therapies he's been through, our family has been taught why he does this.. And it's not always the same reason, as you've expressed in your article here.. Sometimes he just wants to have a conversation with us, sometimes he's had a very rough day- and sometimes he just wants to share what he knows about his favourite subjects... You definitely hit all the main reasons in this hub, so cheers to you for that!
Sometimes it can be a little trying on your patience when you answer a question and you know two seconds later the same question is going to be asked of you. It makes it a little easier to try to figure out why he's asking you the same question over and over- If we know it's because he just wants to share his knowledge with us, instead of simply answering the question, we'll let him ask it- then say something like "Well, I don't know Caleb.. Can you tell me the answer?" And it gives him a chance to exhibit his knowledge to us... If he's doing it because we know he's had a bad day and he's trying to soothe himself, we simply answer the question because making him answer it doesn't serve the need he's looking for (like you mentioned, repetition can help to calm them) ... I, obviously, spend a lot of time with my brother, so it's a little easier to know the reasons are for the constant questions- but sometimes it just feels like a plain old mystery... I've never thought of writing down when and what questions it is he's asking... I like that suggestion very much.. It might provide a little insight on days when we're just not sure what he's looking for... Sometimes kids with autism notice even tiny little details that you miss and you might not even think has an effect on them (like, mom wearing a pink sweater when she picks him up from school, when she was wearing a purple one when she dropped him off.. Sometimes we forget how much attention he actually pays to little details.)
I will try your suggestion about writing things down! Any little thing you can do to help autistic children move through their days a little easier is worth the effort.
Sorry for babbling so long. lol.
I'll definitely check out part two of your hub!
Rob Winters (author) on July 23, 2012:
Thanks again techygran. It's great to get your feedback and to know others can benefit from this information.It's quite a while since i published a hub so i'm very pleasantly encouraged by your comments. Maybe i'll be quicker about getting around to some more hubs this time not that these two were quick writes :-) In fact i initially intended just the one hub on this topic but once i got stuck into it i felt it would be way too large and unwieldy to do it justice so decided to make it a two parter :-)
Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on July 23, 2012:
Thank you Rob Winters-- these first article was a real eye-opener! I have been puzzling out why a particular child asks repetitive questions about our pet and think I have a much better understanding now. I appreciate your being a little repetitive in the article-- I seem to need to hear (read) the answer over and over to come to grips with it. Voted up, useful, interesting and shared!