Perseverating is most commonly associated with autism. It’s very common with kids with ADHD though, trust me. My child is quite skilled at perseverating. He’s quite skilled at falling over the edge when annoyed, into the spiral that seems like [more…] it may never end.

per·sev·er·a·tion

noun \pər-ˌsev-ə-ˈrā-shən\   (Medical Dictionary): continual involuntary repetition of a mental act usually exhibited by speech or by some other form of overt behavior

As I type this, literally, I am listening to Ricochet, my 11-year-old son who has ADHD, go on and on about how much he feels he should not have to empty the dishwasher. He is on a never-ending diatribe, complaining about every little item he has to remove from the kitchen appliance (I love so dearly). And with each item, he gets more irritated, then more angry, then downright volatile and disrespectful. By the end, he’s slamming dishes, throwing pots, and sometimes even breaking items on purpose (I have two coffee mugs now handleless this week alone). He doesn’t perseverate about this chore every night, but it happens 40-50% of the time.

His perseverating causes me to perseverate on how to stop the perseverating. Vicious cycle anyone?

I should note that often times perseveration is much more annoying than harmful. A child with ADHD or autism might become fixated on a particular episode of his or her favorite show, or on the many wonderful qualities of a particular species of dog. I find with Ricochet though, he usually gets this deep sort of fixation when his thoughts get stuck in an inflexible, irritated mode. He just doesn’t have the skills to manage frustration well or to accept that there are some things we have to do, whether we enjoy them or not.

Don’t let our experience with perseverating freak you out though. There are ways to curb perseverating and we are working on it with Ricochet. Of course, as with most behavioral interventions, these strategies are often easier said than done, and they take a lot of time and consistency.

  1. Ignore the behavior: Boy do I have a hard time with this. I’m often sitting in the kitchen when Ricochet is emptying the dishwasher, for example, and I just can’t let him slam a stack of glasses or throw dishes. What I need to do is walk away. I am giving him sensory stimulation by arguing the point and doling out demands. Queen Ignorance is on her way (hey, that didn’t come out right).
  2. Give a time limit and a place for the topic of perseveration: If your child is going on and on about something, you can set a time and place to guide them to appropriate sharing. For instance, if your child is perseverating on owl pellets, you can say, “Sweetie, I love that you are fascinated by owls and how they eat. That is really a topic to be discussed at home and for only 15-20 minutes. After homework this afternoon, I’ll give you 15 minutes to tell me all about owl pellets.” Kids with ADHD and autism don’t know the social appropriateness of the topic of discussion or the length of discussion on the same topic usually. This method teaches that.
  3. Address the anxiety or frustration: Perseveration is often caused by anxiety and/or frustration. If I am nervous at a social gathering, I might pick one topic I know well and go on and on about it. And a feeling of frustration can easily turn to fixation (just ask my husband about my many rants). Use calming techniques like belly breathing, manipulating therapy putty, or lying under a weighted blanket to ease the stress of the situation.

I’m realizing now, as I research for this article, that my son’s obsessive chewing could actually be a form of perseverating too. He is always, always chewing on a small bit of something — paper, plastic, metal, ink pen parts… You name it, I’ve found it in a chewed wad eventually spit on his bedroom floor. No matter how much we’ve talked about the FDA and how  only foods are tested to see if they are safe for you to eat, this behavior doesn’t stop. It’s a subconscious coping mechanism, I’m quite sure.

We keep working on perseverating and many other troublesome behaviors, one day, one hour, one minute at a time.

What does your child perseverate about? How do you help them break the repetition?

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Penny Williams
Author. Parenting Guide. Journalist. Speaker.
Penny Williams guides and mentors parents raising kids with ADHD and/or autism. She’s the parent of a son with ADHD and autism, and the author of three award-winning books on parenting kids with ADHD. Penny is the current editor of ParentingADHDandAutism.com, Founder and Instructor for The Parenting ADHD & Autism Academy, and a frequent contributor on parenting and children with ADHD for ADDitude Magazine and other parenting and special needs publications.