The nature of Autism is the brain’s desire to keep the world the same. This is why one of the hallmark diagnostic features of Autism is repetitive, perseverative, and stereotypical behaviors. One of the most common is scripting in which the child takes dialogue that he or she heard someone else say (usually a favorite cartoon or television character) and applies it in a repetitive and often nonfunctional fashion. Scripting is often referred to as a Comfort Zone behavior. This posting attempts to provide some strategies for how to deal with scripting as well as some reflections on the nature of Comfort Zone behaviors.
For children with Autism, the Comfort Zone is what the child will do when you let them do whatever they want to do. Examples include: playing with/lining up cars, watching portions of the same video, flipping through familiar books, scripting, opening/closing doors/drawers, visually stimulating on an object (e.g., spinning), and staring off in the distance as if in a trance or daydream. By the way, ever wonder why the fascination with trains? The answer is that there is not likely anything much more linear and repetitive than a train going from one place to another and then back again. I digress, so in this comfort zone, children are not connected or engaged with the world. In fact, by the time kindergarten starts, one measure of school readiness is that the children are connected with the social environment most of the time and turn consistently to their names. You probably notice that your child does not turn to his or her name being called consistently if they are absorbed in a particular activity. If your child is ‘stuck’ inside their comfort zone and not paying attention to the environment, not easily engaged, not able to interact in a back-and-forth fashion; then they are going to need help leaving this comfort behavior for longer periods of time (i.e., you will need to engage them more and not allow them to be off on their own in a perseverative or repetitive behavior). The key to remember here is that as engagement with others increases, perseverative/repetitive behaviors such as scripting decreases. Thus, we must be aware of when the child is in his or her comfort zone and not allow them to remain there for too long.
I do want to take a moment to acknowledge, however, how it must feel for a parent to see the Autistic ‘veil’ drop in front of the child’s eyes as they check out from the real world for a moment and become absorbed in a repetitive behavior. Especially for parents who have been working with their child for a number of months or years and have begun to see progress; the child’s return into scripting and other stereotypical behaviors is a glaring reminder that the child has Autism. It also serves as a reminder to the world that something is not quite connecting in the child’s brain. I often conceptualize this as a neurological tug-of-war that is taking place inside the child’s brain. The hardwiring of the Autistic brain is determined to keep the world simple and the same, with little (if any) interest in relationships or social connections. However, as the child makes progress and begins to learn how much fun can be had with others and the value of having play partners, another part of the brain begins to compete for dominance.
I see a similar phenomenon take place among children with OCD that I treat. They experience what I refer to as “brain hiccups” that play tricks in one’s mind, often convincing the child that unless he washes his hands 15 times in a specific fashion, for example, something awful will certainly happen. This thought will not go away (hence the ‘hiccup’) until the child engages in the ritual of the brain’s liking. What these children describe to me, however, is the rational part of their brain telling them that they don’t really want to have to wash their hands that many times (or at all for that matter) to make the thoughts go away. There are often strong similarities between the brains of children with OCD and brains of children with Autism. However, one critical difference is that the OCD brain ultimately wants the repetitive thought to go away while the Autistic brain is comforted by the repetitive and familiar nature of the thought.
- The child in their comfort zone seems like they don’t want to be part of our world. However, this is not regression or a lack of progress. In fact…
- Perseverative and stereotypical behaviors are not ‘bad’. These behaviors help child regulate a chaotic world.
- However, these behaviors may become habits & keep the child isolated. These are potentially addictive for the child and need to be monitored.
- ‘Joining’ in these behaviors helps our engagement with the child.
- As our engagement with the child increases, the perseverative and repetitive behaviors naturally decrease!
For more information on this topic, visit the work of Dr. Rick Solomon and the PLAY Project.
Dr. Mark Bowers is a Licensed Pediatric Psychologist at the Ann Arbor Center for Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Mark Bowers, Ph.D. © 2009