Repetitive Behavior and Object Exploration in Young Autistic Children: How Are They Associated?

Friday, May 12, 2017: 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
M. Dawson1, V. Courchesne2, S. Mineau3, L. Mottron, M.D.3 and C. Jacques4, (1)Centre d'excellence en Troubles envahissants du développement de, Montréal, QC, CANADA, (2)University of Montreal, Montreal, QC, Canada, (3)University of Montreal Center of Excellence for Pervasive Developmental Disorders (CETEDUM), Montreal, QC, Canada, (4)University of Quebec in Outaouais, Gatineau, QC, Canada
Background: An often-repeated but questionable claim about repetitive behaviors in autism is that they interfere with learning. More specifically, increased repetitive behaviors are thought to reduce exploration of the environment in autistic children, thus reducing opportunities for learning (Pierce & Courchesne E., 2001; Sasson et al., 2008, for a review). However, using the Montreal Stimulating Play Situation (MSPS), we found that young autistic children displayed significantly more repetitive behaviors than age-matched typical children, but the two groups of children did not significantly differ in their exploration of objects (Jacques et al., 2016). Our previous findings did not seem to support the prevailing view, but did not address how or whether repetitive behavior is associated with object exploration in autistic and typical young children.

Objectives: Building on our previous findings, and within the same sample of children, to determine whether repetitive behaviors and object explorations (their frequency and duration) are associated in young autistic children; and to determine whether these associations are similar to or different from those found in age-matched typical children.

Methods: 49 autistic (mean age=47.1 months, SD=10.49; mean MSEL=63.7, SD=19.14) and 43 typical (mean age=42.8 months, SD=13.65, p=.09; mean MSEL=110.7, SD=16.9, p<.001) children were assessed with MSPS. Four play periods (one free-play, one semi-free play, one semi-structured play, and a second free-play period) including 34-40 objects of potential interest to autistic children were filmed. Two naïve typical raters coded duration (in seconds) and frequency (number of occurrences) of repetitive behaviors and object explorations on Observer XT 11©. Correlations between repetitive behaviors and object explorations were calculated for autistic and typical groups for the full MSPS (4 correlations), and for each play period (16 correlations).


For the full MSPS, in typical children, frequency of repetitive behaviors was significantly and positively correlated with frequency of object explorations (r=.336, p=.028), but this was not the case for autistic children, where no significant correlation was found (r=.146, p=.32). Similarly, duration of repetitive behaviors was significantly and positively correlated with duration of object explorations in typical (r=.358, p=.018) but not autistic (r=.058, p=.69) children. The difference between groups was significant for duration (p=.028) but not for frequency (p=.35) correlations.

For the 4 MSPS play periods, correlations were either significantly positive (5 for autistic and 4 for typical children) or not significant (the remaining 7). Significant positive correlations were weak to moderate (r=.296 to .564). There were no significant negative correlations.

Conclusions: Across the full MSPS, we found weak but significant positive correlations between repetitive behaviors and object explorations in young typical children, such that increased repetitive behavior was weakly associated with increased object exploration. No significant correlations were found in age-matched autistic children, who in this sample displayed significantly more repetitive behaviors than their typical controls. Within individual MSPS play periods, some significant positive correlations were found in both groups. However, we found no significant negative correlations. We found no evidence that repetitive behavior reduces or interferes with object exploration in either autistic or typical young children.