Despite having autism, I am passionate about writing about various subjects. I also love to travel and do crafts.
What are perseverations lists? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines perseveration as "continuation of something (such as an activity or thought) usually to an extreme degree or beyond a desired point." In the context of autistic loved ones who struggle with it, it takes on the form of physical stims or, if verbal, reciting lines from media and talking at great lengths about their favorite subjects.
“Often the person on the spectrum hyper-focuses on favorite subjects, talking non-stop about them and missing social cues from others to stop," noted Temple Grandin, in her book with Kate Duffy, M. S., Developing Talents: Careers for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism.
"Sometimes people on the spectrum tune out others when they find themselves becoming overstimulated or anxious. Individuals may act aloof, keeping themselves apart from others as a way to manage their anxieties. As a result, they can appear unfriendly, sometimes even rude.”
My experiences with perseveration
As someone who has went through that in elementary and middle school, I've been through those instances in which I wasn't aware that what I loved to talk about the most really repelled who I was talking to.
About a few days after disembarking Carnival Cruise Line's MS Tropicale in September 1995, I yakked a great length about Tropicana Lounge, the theater in which comedian acts; the passengers and crew talent show; and revues featuring the singers, dancers, and a 7-piece showband took place.
My kindergarten teacher restrained me before our class headed to the multipurpose room for lunch, saying, "No Tropicana Lounge."
Days after a Spring Break trip in Florida, including going to Walt Disney World with my parents (it was in 1997, and their 25th jubilee was going on at the time), at age 7, I talked to myself (out loud, of course) about Ellen's Energy Adventure while waiting for the school bus. My late grandmother stopped me, saying, "Forget about Ellen."
I felt bad about not wanting to talk about the former Epcot attraction starring Ellen DeGeneres, Alex Trebek, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Bill Nye any further. So, I dared myself not to bring it up on the bus rides to and from school or my 2nd grade teacher to prevent another "No Tropicana Lounge incident."
At 5th grade, I discovered a deep appreciation of classical music thanks to many books, before-school morning viewings of Classic Arts Showcase, and my old cable provider having Ovation TV. Thanks to Ton Koopman's 1997 performances of select cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, Michala Petri before school, and a poopload of Howard Goodall documentaries, those experiences were mainly why I became the minority who appreciated and enjoyed the recorder units in my music classes at elementary school.
But that then-newfound passion spelt out some trouble. I remembered talking to one of my uncles over the phone about Georg Frederic Handel at 6th grade. But shortly after the phone call, my parents told me off for talking about it because he neither knew nor was interested in the subject. They gently did that again when I was talking about classical music with cousins before heading off to the fishing piers on the Sunshine Skyway.
Again, as an autistic tween at the time, I was left wondering why it wasn't appropriate to talk about classical music in some of those times.
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"Conversations with typical peers are very one-sided because individuals with (Asperger Syndrome) will perseverate on topics that are of interest to them, even though the particular topic is not interesting to peers," as the book School Success with High-Functioning Autism explains.
As an adult, I figured out that it also applied to my elders, to whom I deeply and completely forgive and acknowledge that I had understood later in life why sometimes there were times when they weren't appropriate to talk about Tropicana Lounge, Ellen's Energy Adventure, or classical music as a child and tween. I'd laugh about those times looking back, though I learned a lot of lessons from them.
Though I mostly control my perseveration nowadays, I'll tell you how the behavior affects social, school, and workplace life for most others.
How perseveration affects others
As mentioned, autistic individuals who are verbal oftentimes have trouble making and keeping friends via talking excessively about their favorite subjects or recite lines from movies. Perseveration is also why some verbally autistic students even have trouble focusing on school or keeping up with school assignments.
It can even lead police to arrest autistic children because in some cases faculty members would even misconstrue the lines they would recite in their classes as threats. In January 2021, police charged a 12-year-old Marietta, GA, boy with autism with a felony because he was reciting something about burning his middle school with "fire-filled bottles." It turned out that the verbal disruptions were about him scripting dialogue from the Rockstar video game, Red Dead Redemption.
The court acquitted the two charges that August, and the mother prevented the boy from playing the game.
Due to the repetitive behaviors via bringing up subjects that excessively bore others and scripting, verbal autistic adults would often be predisposed to retain jobs for short amounts of time. It often happens when they are working in fields or areas unrelated to their special interests such as retail jobs and foodservice jobs mostly in fast-food and fast casual restaurants.
Such occupations employ many verbally autistic adults, mostly AND sadly part-time. It's one HUGE reason why a majority of them are unemployed or underemployed, despite the fact that their special interests as well as scripting (which could've made some of them excellent actors in community theater) could lead them to fulfilling careers.
Enter the perseverations list
Therapists, parents, and others who work with autistic individuals use methods to rein their perseverative behaviors in. They include setting timers to allot minutes into talking about their favorite subjects; using social stories to remind them visually about appropriate times to discuss them; and using them as rewards for activities they seem to see as mundane.
But here's another effective tool that could work for kin and people who work with autistic individuals: the perseverations list.
It's similar to a distractions list, which helps chronic procrastinators stay focused on whichever tasks need to be done. "This is where you create a list with all of the things you want to be distracted with as it happens," Australian coach Sam Laura Brown said in her podcast, The Perfectionism Project, "Every time I wanted to do something that wasn't what I planned to do, I would write down what it was."
A perseverations list works in a very similar way. Kin and coaches can help autistic individuals write down instances in which they'd recite lines from media or talk about favorite subjects as they happen. It can be done with a journal upon which the individual who has adequate handwriting or the one observing those behaviors writes a list of them; a tablet computer one uses to communicate; or a Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) binder.
Also, list specific reasons why autistic individuals would recite lines from movies or talk at great length about classical music. In some cases, they are coping with sensory overload. Again, most adult ones who are fortunate to be employed work at jobs unrelated to their special interests, so tasks they perceive as boring might trigger them to perseverate in the first place.
A perseverations list can be the launchpad of "first-then" prompts. Because so many autistic individuals are visual learners, anyone working with them can help them pick out an item from their list, find a picture or printed photo of it, and stick it under the "then" column.
A perseverations list also serves as a prewriting activity for the aforementioned social stories. Again, they prompt autistic individuals the appropriate and inappropriate times to talk about dinosaurs or recite lines from TV shows. The more they teach them how to be aware of and fully acknowledge the reasons why they are doing those things and how to set aside an appropriate time to do just that, the more they can expand their brains and improve their social skills at home, work, or school.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 talfonso