Perseveration is the repetition of a particular response (such as a word, phrase, or gesture) regardless of the absence or cessation of a stimulus. It can be a fixation on something or someone. Autistic people frequently spend hours of time studying an unusual topic of interest (such as airplanes, dogs, or books by J. K. Rowling). Other people may notice that they spend a long time disappearing into books or websites about the interest, or find that the autistic person loves to share information about it, sometimes to the point that it becomes annoying. If the repetition occurs to an exceptional degree or beyond a desired point, it is usually considered perseveration.
What you’re seeing when an autistic person “gets stuck” on a topic or an idea is called perseveration. You may have heard the term in regard to people with autism, but it can affect other kids or adults too. It’s a challenging behavior that can be frustrating for autistics and neurodivergent people- and for their families and teachers.
Here’s what you need to know about perseveration, and the best ways to respond to it.
What perseveration or “getting stuck” looks like:
People who perseverate often say the same thing or behave in the same way over and over again. They do it past the point where it makes sense or will change anything. It’s like they’re stuck in a loop that they can’t get out of.
Picture this scenario: A child is crazy about dogs and has studied different breeds and the history of the species. On his birthday, he gets an encyclopedia of dogs. He’s so excited that he doesn’t want to put it aside to open other presents.
For the rest of the day, all he talks about is dogs. And no matter how often you tell him it’s time to talk about something else or that not everyone is as interested in the topic as he is, he just won’t stop. So you end up getting irritated.
But the issue isn’t really that he won’t stop. It’s that he doesn’t know how to stop. He may not even know he’s obsessing over the topic in the first place.
People who perseverate aren’t being defiant or stubborn. They have specific challenges that cause them to get stuck. They might struggle with managing stress, processing information, having sensory issues, shifting attention, or being able to put the brakes on certain behaviors or thoughts.
It’s important to know there’s a difference between perseverations and obsessions. Obsessions are a part of a mental health condition called obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). In some cases, kids may have both OCD and learning and thinking differences.
More than just endless talking
Perseveration isn’t just about being fixated on a topic and talking endlessly about it. People can get stuck on their emotions, actions and thoughts, too. And that can show up in different ways.
A person might:
Worry about something that might happen because it happened before. For example, not wanting to go outside because the neighbor’s big dog once got loose and “it might happen again.”
Have trouble getting past being angry or scared.
Continue to ask the same question long after getting an answer.
Keeping thinking about previous conversations or interactions. (This is sometimes called “looping thoughts.”)
Fidget or repeat an action over and over again, such as zipping and unzipping a coat or lining up all the toys.
Repeatedly talk about something that happened a long time ago. For example: “Remember when Grandma gave me that new toy car? She hid it and I found it when I was looking for something else. That was great. Remember that?”
Give the same answer to a different set of questions, even when the answer doesn’t make sense.
Look for a lost item in the same place without looking anywhere else because it “must be there.”
For some people, perseveration can be a coping mechanism for when they feel overwhelmed, anxious, or not familiar with a situation.
The role of learning and thinking differences
There can be a number of reasons why some people with learning and thinking differences get stuck. Many are related to weaknesses in executive functions or information processing. Some reasons include:
Having trouble finding ways to calm the body or mind.
Struggling with flexible thinking , which makes it hard to change a reaction in response to your reaction.
Having slower processing speed, making it hard to sort through thoughts and understand a situation quickly.
Finding it hard to understand social cues or to know how to react appropriately to a situation.
Having difficulty with impulse control, making it hard to stop once started.
Being hyperfocused, making it hard to switch attention to something else.
How to respond when you/someone gets stuck
It can be frustrating to try to reason with someone who is stuck, or to try to move on before they are ready to. But knowing that they’re reacting to a challenge can help you see it in a different light. It can also help you find ways to respond — both in the moment and proactively.
Here are some ways to help with perseveration:
Talk about it. It’s important for people to know that they’re getting stuck. Talk to them about it when they’re not perseverating and describe what you’ve been seeing. Describe situations in which it can cause problems and how other people may react to it.
Respond with empathy to reduce anxiety. It can be hard to be empathetic, but it can go a long way in reducing anxiety. Getting stuck can be a response to being anxious or overwhelmed, being empathetic and calming to yourself and others may help in getting unstuck.
Encourage self-monitoring. Knowing that you're/they're getting stuck is key in being able to learn how to let go and move on. Self-monitoring can be hard for people who learn and think differently. Help by asking them/yourself to consider things like whether what they’re doing is helping or causing issues with other people.
Help to make connections. After a bout of perseveration, take some time to reflect and then revisit it. Talk about what happened, and help recognize what went wrong. That includes what started the loop and ways to handle things differently next time.
Identify the appropriate stopping point. Even if it’s after the fact, identify where it could've been, for next time.
Create a “stuck signal.” It can help to have a phrase or action that can let someone know when they’re stuck. It can be as simple as saying, “You seem to be stuck on this,” or a signal like putting a hand in the air.
Have a plan for getting “unstuck.” Talk about things you can do to stop when you give/get the signal. Some people need to take a break to regroup. Sometimes you might say you are ending the conversation. Keep in mind that when people are stuck, they may not be willing to hear you. It’s important to make sure they know the plan isn’t negotiable in the moment.
When people have the ongoing experience of having people be irritated and annoyed at them, it can take a toll on their self-esteem . Learn ways to teach flexible thinking and coping skills to help people begin to get unstuck. And recognize the signs that people may be experiencing anxiety .
When people perseverate, they often do it as a reaction to anxiety or trouble processing information.
They may not realize when they’re stuck and need help recognizing it.
You can help learn to self-monitor to see when they’re perseverating and find ways to get “unstuck.”
Perseveration may have a positive impact on an autistic person's life. They can harness their intense focus and specialized knowledge to become experts in a particular field. For example, an autistic girl whose special interest is computer science could go on to have a very successful career at Silicon Valley. People who perseverate show remarkable focus and ability to study for extended periods of time.
Perseveration is not always positive. For example, if a woman becomes frustrated while building a robot, and begins thinking It's not working, it's not working, it's not working... then this is not good. Her anxiety is taking over her thoughts and preventing her to do what she wants to do.
When perseverating turns negative, it is best to break the cycle. Autistic people can get a drink, take a walk, or take a bathroom break, and then come back.
Some overlapping with fixation, mania, otaku, hobby, collecting.