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BACKGROUND: The behavioural phenotypes of Prader-Willi (PWS) and Fragile-X (FraX) syndromes both comprise repetitive behaviours with differences between the profiles. In this study we investigated the context and antecedents to the repetitive behaviours and the association with other behavioural phenotypic characteristics in order to generate testable hypotheses regarding the cause of the behaviours. METHOD: The parents or carers of 46 children with PWS (mean age 14.1 years; 20 girls), and 33 boys with FraX (mean age 13.11 years) were interviewed about their children's repetitive behaviour in a semi-structured format. RESULTS: Children showed negative emotional behaviour (PWS: 87.0%; FraX: 79.4%) and repetitive questions (PWS: 78.3%; FraX: 73.5%) following changes in routine or expectations. Significantly more temper outbursts were reported to follow changes in children with PWS (89.1%) compared with boys with FraX (41.2%) (chi(2) = 20.93; P <0.001). Anxiety that was frequently associated with repetitive and self-injurious behaviours in boys with FraX, followed changes in significantly more boys with FraX (76.5%) compared with children with PWS (6.5%) (chi(2) = 43.19, P <0.001). DISCUSSION: On the basis of these reports and existing literature, we hypothesise that decreases in predictability are aversive to children with PWS and FraX. We also hypothesise that these children have a propensity to show a syndrome-related pattern of behaviour (temper outbursts in PWS and displays of anxiety in FraX) when an event in the environment has this aversive property. We hypothesise that questions may be reinforcing to children in their own right by increasing the predictability of the environment. We outline how a specific cognitive deficit in the endophenotypes associated with both PWS and FraX could be investigated as a potential explanation for the hypothesised aversive properties of decreased predictability.