How can perseverative thoughts be lessened?
Perseveration is when a person has repetitive thoughts and dwells on negative incidents, causing them to become “stuck”. Perseverative thoughts can happen because a person may be trying to manage stress, process information, shift attention, can’t stop thinking about certain things, or can’t control behaviors. This kind of thinking, or looping thoughts, is not done consciously or on purpose. It can be a coping mechanism for someone when they feel overwhelmed, anxious, or not familiar with a situation (hence the need for autistic people to have predictability).
Why do autistic people perseverate?
There are a number of reasons why autistic people perseverate. Some of these reasons include:
- not knowing how to calm the mind and body
- difficulty with flexible thinking
- slow processing speed which means a person needs a lot of time to take in, make sense of, and respond to information
- not understanding social cues
- a lack of impulse control
- being hyperfocused on things a person is interested in
What are the signs of perseveration?
Perseveration may look like:
- worrying about something that might happen because it happened in the past
- having difficulty getting past being angry or scared
- continuing to ask the same question long after getting an answer to the question
- going over previous conversations or interactions in the mind (also known as looping thoughts)
- repeating an action over and over again (also known as repetitive or restrictive behaviors)
- repeatedly talking about something that happened a long time ago
- giving the same answer to a different set of questions, even if it makes no sense
How can we help an autistic person get “unstuck”?
To help a person become unstuck with their thinking, we have to figure out why it is happening and how to address those reasons.
Sensory overload happens when there is more input coming in from the senses than the brain can sort and process. Autistic people tend to be more hypersensitive to sensory input, making sensory overload more likely.
Sensory overload will not only affect sensory regulation, but also emotional and cognitive regulation. Emotional regulation lets a person respond to social rules with a range of emotions through initiating, inhibiting, or modulating their behavior in a given situation to ensure social acceptance. Cognitive regulation allows a person to use cognitive (mental) processes necessary for problem solving and related abilities in order to demonstrate attention and persistence to tasks.
A sensory diet can help reduce overload. This is an individualized plan of physical activities and accommodations to help a person meet their sensory needs – a plan that provides the sensory input needed to stay focused and organized throughout the day.
Understanding a person’s sensory profile and the activities which support calmness and regulation can really help when a person feels overwhelmed and out of control. Engaging people in sensory experiences on a regular schedule can support focus, attentiveness, and interaction. Individuals tend to feel less anxious when they feel comfortable and in control.
Anxiety is a complex subject because there is no one cause for its occurrence. When an autistic person feels anxious, perseverative thoughts can start. There can be a number of reasons for anxiety such as:
- difficulty with social situations
- loss or change of routine
- not being able to identify, understand and manage emotions
- sensory overload/unfriendly sensory environment
- feeling misunderstood and wanting to fit in by masking or camouflaging autistic traits
Some tips for managing anxiety are:
- Know the anxiety triggers. Triggers can be identified through keeping a journal or observational notes.
- Monitor and manage energy levels. Develop an awareness of energy levels after events and activities such as school or work. Allow for breaks, periods of rest, and the chance to engage in enjoyable interests that can recharge the batteries.
- Make accommodations to the environment – Altering the environment can help with sensory overload. Have quiet spaces, soft lighting, wear noise cancelling headphones.
- Reduce demands. If a person is struggling, stop talking, allow for personal space, and reduce the demands on that person.
- Use sensory tools to calm and soothe. Examples are fidgets, items that provide deep pressure, stress balls to squeeze etc.
- Use relaxation and calming activities. Examples of these could be meditation, yoga, listening to music, and physical activity.
- Visual schedules and routines. Visual schedules and routines provide structure and predictability.
- Consider using an anxiety app. Molehill Mountain was designed specifically for autistic people. Brain in Hand can also help with anxiety and executive function support.
Parking Perseverative Thoughts
Judy Endow, autistic adult and visual thinker, wrote an excellent blog post on this topic and how she helps her clients park those repetitive thoughts. Judy says, “Sometimes the perseveration is happening because the individual is thinking about something they do not want to forget and haven’t yet figured out another way to hold onto their visual thought.”
Some of Judy’s ideas for parking perseverative thoughts are:
- Create a parking garage or parking lot in your mind. Park the picture of that thought into the garage for access at a later time. To first practice this concept, it may be helpful to draw the garage, build a 3 dimensional structure, or use a box. Draw the visual thought that needs to park and put in the garage. This lets a person know the thought is still there for later retrieval but it doesn’t need to be kept by repeating it.
- Write out the visual thought or draw it so that there is a concrete record of it. Direct instruction and repetitious practice will have to happen before the seemingly simple idea of writing it down becomes a viable everyday strategy.
- Visually pull up a future scene of when you need to remember your current thought. Again, this can be done through drawings or pictures.
Autism Classroom News and Resources also gives some great suggestions on how to create parking places for thoughts.
Other visual ideas could be using a basket or a bowl to put thoughts into. This can either be done by imagining the thoughts and sweeping them into the basket or bowl or writing them out on paper and physically putting thoughts away into the basket or bowl for the time being.
Distraction can also temporarily stop repeating thoughts. Distraction is like a “pause button”. Simple activities can help with perseveration such as doing chores, engaging in a favorite activity like baking or building something, providing a break from repetitive thoughts.
An autistic person will have their own reasons and circumstances as to why they have certain repetitive thoughts. Creating an individualized plan that supports positive changes to reduce perseveration using various activities and addressing sensory overload and anxiety can pave the way for happiness, well-being, and long term good mental health.
Brancaccio, R. (2017, September 13) Reducing Perseverative Thoughts in Autism. Revibe Tech.
Endow, J. (2015, October 23). Autism, Perseveration, and Holding On to Thoughts. Judy Endow.
Morin, A. What is perseveration? Understood.
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