Autism, Writing, and the Necessity of Repetition

Robert Fromberg
Covering Autism and Creativity
TDR Regular Contributor / July 21, 2021

Now available for pre-order: Robert Fromberg’s How to Walk with Steve

Autism is repetition.

As a boy, my brother Steve would play the same 15 seconds of “A Day in the Life” by the Beatles 50 times in a row. Today, he sometimes has to touch a doorjamb with the edge of his foot five times before entering a room. Our phone conversations must occur at the same time on the same day each week, and they follow a strict template for what I ask and how he responds.

Some of Steve’s repetition is for fun. The passage in “A Day in the Life” that he used to repeat is the accelerating sound collage toward the end of the song. The effect is really cool, and who wouldn’t want to listen to it multiple times?

Some of Steve’s repetition is for comfort. He used to do what we called “bounce.” When he sat, he bounced forward, fell back into the seat, bounced forward, fell back, bounced forward. As a boy, I tried to bounce. It felt good, like sleeping in motion. This type of repetition, in the autism world, is called self-stimulation and has an addictive quality. I don’t know about Steve, but I wanted to bounce forever.

Steve’s repetition sometimes creates order. He craves minor variations as a means to reinforce highly familiar structures. He adores the small differences among the omnipresent sameness of McDonald’s restaurants and interstate highways, to cite just two examples. In a world composed of movements, behaviors, words, signs, and symbols that operate in a way that seems inexplicable to a person with autism—and to me as well, I suppose—the ability to create order through repeated sorting is an understandable refuge.

And sometimes, his repetition is an expression of despair. I have been tempted to write an essay about Steve during the COVID-19 pandemic that would consist solely of the following statement repeated 4,800 times (that’s roughly the number of days of the pandemic so far multiplied by five repetitions per call, multiplied by two calls per day):

“I’m worried the pandemic will last for the rest of the year or two years or ten years or for the rest of my life. I’m worried I won’t go back to work for the rest of the year or next year or for ten years or for the rest of my life. I’m worried I won’t be able to see you for the rest of the year or next year or for ten years or for the rest of my life.”

Writing is also repetition, sometimes for obvious reasons, and sometimes not. Over his 50-year writing career, Rex Stout repeatedly used the name ‘Darst’ for peripheral characters in his novels. (Speaking of repetition, I didn’t notice this until I had read his books more than 10 times.) In his brilliant novel The Glass Key, Dashiell Hammett repeats the full name “Ned Beaumont” 860 times. The central feature of Raymond Federman’s oeuvre, along with frequent textual repetition, is an evocatively inconsistent rewriting of his own life story.

Repetition of words, phrases, syntax, and grammatical structures is critical to transitions, pace, emphasis, and parallel concepts, among a thousand other facets of prose and poetry. Outside of verbal repetition, there is repetition within an author’s body of work of detail, character, theme, setting, and, well, you get the idea. Despite this presence and usefulness, repetition gets a bad rap in writing specifically and in the arts in general.

A quick Google search shows that the internet is dotted with articles warning against unintentional verbal repetition in writing. One begins: “Children love repetition. Adults not so much.”

When I used to be a speechwriter, more than once I was reviewing an intended-to-be-inspirational scripts with speakers, only for them to point to some repeated word or phrase I had used for emphasis and say, “You have this word here” (pointing at the one spot on the screen) “and the same word here” (pointing at the next sentence). “Why would you want to do that?”

I remember in my graduate writing program when I was 21 years old being told that I had done one type of story enough and should now try something different.

I am a prodigious watcher of the TV show Project Runway. I re-watched the entire (at that time) 16 seasons plus several seasons of Project Runway All-Stars while going through a divorce. The contestants are forever being praised one week for mastering a certain type of design and criticized the next for repeating it: “You’re beginning to seem like a one-trick pony,” the judges inevitably say.

How many artists of any kind have enough breadth to master more than one style? How many of our lives have more than one idée fixe? Surely, any form, technique, subject, or style has enough richness to warrant a life’s attention, and surely the richness of any one life warrants spending its creative portion immersed in that singular richness.

Skepticism about repetition seems rooted in the same ideological framework that would presume it is not necessary but wrong for my brother Steve to draw pleasure from listening to a 15-second portion of a song 50 times (at its extreme, the “normalization” school of thought for the developmentally disabled would not tolerate Steve in his room for a couple of hours with a Beatles album on the turntable and one hand on the tonearm).

It is not wrong but necessary for Steve to touch a doorway five times before he enters. It was not wrong but necessary for me to draw comfort from 240 similarly structured episodes of Project Runway during a period of upheaval. It was not wrong but necessary for my brother to issue as many repetitions of despair as he wants during a pandemic that has blown apart his experience of a pleasurable present and his expectations for a predictable future.

Writing, like all expressive arts, and like autism, is a necessary life-long grappling with what each of us craves and fears. Repetition is how we do that.

Forthcoming September 7, 2021 from Latah Books:

“Robert Fromberg knocks me out.”
Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gilead

“In refusing easy consolations, Fromberg has created a memoir that shines like polished bone.”
– Patricia Eakins, author of The Hungry Girls and Other Stories

“Without a trace of affectation or adornment, Fromberg depicts the searing moments that made him who he is. Never have I read a more authentic, deeply-felt rendering of a child’s developing mind.”
– Leslie Lawrence, author of The Death of Fred Astaire and Other Essays from a Life Outside the Lines


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