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Repetitive habitual behaviors can indicate a condition known as stereotypic movement disorder.

This lesson will define stereotypy and provide examples of stereotypic behaviors.

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Stereotypy

Like so many parents of young children, Jane is committed to doing the best job possible raising her son Jack. Lately, however, Jane has noticed that three-year-old Jack is exhibiting some worrisome behaviors. She recently found him in his room in an almost trance-like state, repeatedly banging his head against the wall for no apparent reason. When Jane takes Jack to the doctor and explains what’s going on, the doctor mentions that Jack might have a condition known as stereotypy.

What is Stereotypy?

Stereotypy is a neurological disorder that is characterized by involuntary rhythmic and predictable bodily movements that occur without reason. The repetitive movements that someone with stereotypy exhibits, like Jack banging his head against the wall, serve no functional purpose.Primary stereotypy, also called stereotypic movement disorder, is known as non-autistic stereotypy and occurs in children who are otherwise developing normally. Stereotypy is usually noted in the first three or four years of life and can endure into adulthood. The cause of primary stereotypy in otherwise normally developing children remains unknown. Stereotypy can also occur in children with autism, mental retardation, or hearing or visual impairments. In these cases, it is not considered primary stereotypy and is instead called secondary stereotypy, since it is linked to an underlying condition

Symptoms and Examples of Stereotypy

Primary stereotypy can be categorized into three types.

These types are grouped according to the symptoms, or habitual behaviors presented by the individual:

  • Common stereotypies – these include behaviors that are often observed such as nail biting, thumb sucking, hair twirling, biting oneself, teeth grinding, rocking, and head banging. Typically, these type of behaviors become less frequent with age.
  • Head nodding – head nodding includes movement of the head in a side-to-side motion or an up-and-down motion. This type of movement can be accompanied by gazing of the eyes or simultaneous movement of the hands or feet.

  • Complex motor stereotypies – these behaviors include arm flapping, repetitive movements with the hands (such as moving them in circles), finger movement in front of the face, and repeatedly opening and closing the hands. These behaviors usually take place on both sides of the body.

Remember Jack, who repeatedly banged his head against the wall in our earlier example? His behavior could be categorized under common stereotypies.

Although the majority of stereotypies tend to resolve themselves with age and are generally not harmful, it is important to seek a complete medical examination to rule out any underlying mental health or physical causes.

Treatment Options for Stereotypy

Many stereotypies are not particularly harmful and may not require treatment. For example, hair twirling and thumb sucking typically extinguish themselves as a child get older. However, when a stereotypy presents potentially harmful consequences, such as head banging or teeth grinding, treatment and management options should be considered. Some of these options include the following:

  • Utilizing helmets and protective devices
  • Behavioral therapies such as learning relaxation techniques, or using self-monitoring and reinforcement options
  • Using bitter tasting, non-toxic topical substances to curb behaviors, such as nail biting and thumb sucking

Going back to Jack’s case, if he doesn’t stop repeatedly banging his head against the wall, there could potentially be physical consequences, including a possible concussion. In his case, wearing a protective helmet to cushion his head might be an appropriate intervention until the behavior is extinguished.In extreme cases of stereotypy, prescription medication might be an option, but it is rarely recommended as an initial treatment option.

Lesson Summary

Stereotypy is a neurological disorder that is characterized by repetitive, involuntary movements of the body that are generally predictable. Most stereotypies are considered primary stereotypy and are not associated with autism or an underlying mental or medical disorder. Although the cause of stereotypy remains unknown, it usually presents itself by the age of four.Primary stereotypy can be grouped into three categories according to the symptoms or habitual behaviors that are present. These include common stereotypies, such as thumb sucking or head banging; head nodding, such as involuntary movement of the head in a back-and-forth motion; and complex motor stereotypies, such as arm flapping.

Most stereotypies don’t require medical intervention and will resolve themselves on their own. However, there are several treatment and management options that can be considered when the behaviors present possible health consequences. These can include behavioral therapies, protective devices, and reinforcement options, to name a few. Although most stereotypies are not serious and tend to resolve themselves with age, it is advisable to seek a comprehensive mental and physical health examination to rule out any underlying causes.

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