Stereotypic Movement Disorder

Stereotypic movement disorder involves repetitive, purposeless movements in children, typically before age eight. A stereotypical movement is flapping the back of the hand, rocking the body, banging the head, or biting one’s own mouth. A diagnosis of repetitive movement disorder is only given if it causes a child distress and impairs their functioning on the job or results in self-injury.

Movement disorders are rare in young children, but stereotypical movements are common. However, children rarely make complex stereotypic movements. It’s commonly found among people with developmental disabilities and intellectual disabilities, but it’s also prevalent in typically developing kids. Despite the fact that stereotypic movements may appear purposeless, it may reduce anxiety when faced with external stress.

Read: Motor Disorders

What are “stereotypies”?

Stereotypies are motor behaviors that act involuntarily, rhythmically, repetitively, and predictably with no apparent function or purpose. Repeated hand waving, arm flapping, finger wiggling, and more can show signs of repetitive motion.

What causes stereotypic movement disorder?

There is no known direct cause. The severity of the disorder may be affected by risk factors. Environmental stress or social isolation may lead to symptoms. Physiological changes resulting from fear can lead an individual to engage in stereotypic behaviors more frequently. Stereotypic behaviors are more likely with lower cognitive functioning and interventions are less likely to be effective with such a person. Recently, research has revealed that gamma-aminobutyric acid may not work properly in the brain.

Are stereotypical movements related to the autism spectrum?

Symptoms such as stereotypical movements may occur with autism spectrum disorder. Stereotypies of motor movement are one of the characteristics of autism spectrum disorder, so if these repetitive behaviors appear to be better explained by autism spectrum disorder, no additional diagnosis of stereotypic movement disorder is given. However, stereotypies that cause self-injury may be diagnosed with both diagnoses.

Can genetics affect stereotypic movement disorder?

In one study, 25% of kids with motor stereotypies had a family history of the disorder. This suggests genetics play some role in the disorder.

Read: Chronic Motor Tic Disorder

Stereotypic movement disorder symptoms

It’s common for this disorder to cause repetitive movements like:

Repeated, purposeless, and intentional movement. You might shake your hand, wring it, bang your head, self-hit, or bite your own lips.

  • There are a lot of movements that interrupt regular life, such as causing academic or relationship problems
  • Children often show these behaviors
  • Behavior is not indicative of an obsessive-compulsive disorder or repetitive behaviors focused on the body

There are a wide variety of repetitive movements exhibited by children, and each exhibits his or her own unique, individual style. It is likely that the repetitions will increase due to boredom, stress, excitement or exhaustion. When children are focused on them or distracting them, some children stop their repetitive movements, while others cannot.

There are mild, moderate, and severe forms of stereotypic movement disorder. People with mild cases are usually able to subdue their body movements easily. The behaviors of people with a moderate case will have to be modified and protective measures are taken. People with a severe case will need permanent monitoring and protective measures to keep them safe.

Read: Facial Tics Disorder

Diagnosis of stereotypic movement disorder

If an individual exhibits any of the aforementioned stereotypical movements, then it is likely that they have stereotypic movement disorder. If a child bites their lips or pokes their eyes that could lead to self-injury is present, the disorder is more severe in young children. When a child has stereotypic movements, a pediatrician should be consulted if they exhibit no other signs of developmental disability.

What is the difference between stereotypies and “stimming”?

Most commonly, yes, though people on the autism spectrum usually use the term “stimming”. The term stimming refers to an individual’s tendency to self-stimulate. In autism, stimming can encompass behaviors such as hand flapping, flicking fingers and spinning.

Stereotypic movement disorder treatment

This treatment will help treat any injuries caused by the child’s behavior, ensure his or her safety, and improve the child’s functioning. It is possible that the environment of the child needs to be modified to reduce the risk of injury. Children who bang their heads may need a helmet to prevent injuries to their heads.

Therapy aimed at reducing the stress that may trigger the condition is the most common treatment approach used for children with this condition. You may teach a child who feels the urge to pick or hit at the skin to keep his hands in his pockets when he feels the urge. It may also be helpful to use relaxation techniques to encourage the child to resist the urge.

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behaviors (DRO) is a behavioral therapy approach that rewards socially appropriate behaviors. Functional Communication Training (FTC) is a behavioral technique that teaches and rewards individuals for attempting to replace stereotypical behaviors when aware of the need for something or feeling distressed with alternative responses or verbal strategies.

SSRIs, such as Luvox, Prozac, and Zoloft, and tricyclic antidepressants, such as Anafranil, may be helpful in some cases. Youth with autism spectrum disorders also show benefits from atypical antipsychotics such as risperidone and aripiprazole.

Read: Dystonia Disorder

How many people have motor stereotypies?

Simple stereotypical movements are common among young children, such as rocking. It is much rarer for young children to display complex stereotypic movements, which occur in about 3 to 4 percent of them. There is an increase in stereotypy among children with intellectual disabilities, which ranges from 4 to 16 percent.

What is the average duration of an episode?

There may be many stereotypic movements during a day that last several seconds or several minutes. Episodes often occur several times a day, sometimes every few weeks or sometimes not at all. Individuals engage in the behavior when engaged in other activities, stressed, tired, or bored, or when they are excited, stressed or bored.

What are the potential outcomes of stereotypic movement disorder?

Children who suffer from stereotypic movement disorder often exhibit purposeless arm waving and other characteristics as infants, but they grow out of them as they become older. Therapy can be beneficial for children who experienced stereotypic movements as children. Some persons with other developmental disabilities or those on the autism spectrum may not experience a reduction in symptoms over time.

Read: Generalized Dystonia


The risk of self-injury is reduced when a person recognizes and acts on symptoms as soon as they appear, even if it may be impossible to prevent stereotypic movement disorder.