What’s a stereotypy?

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Stereotypies are repetitive movements without an apparent reason. They can be common in healthy children but can also indicate medical conditions such as autism or schizophrenia. There are different types of stereotypies, including common and complex motor stereotypies. Tics are similar to stereotypies but are preceded by a mental impulse. Stereotypies can be caused by physical or psychological problems and can also occur in animals.

A stereotypy is a type of movement that a person makes over and over again for no apparent reason. Healthy young children often exhibit stereotypies such as finger wiggles, but tend to grow out of them. Common stereotypies in adults that don’t necessarily indicate an underlying medical cause include teeth grinding, hair pulling, and nail biting. Medical conditions that can cause the repetitive behaviors, however, range from autism to schizophrenia. While the exact reasons for the behaviors are unknown, problems with brain and nerve transmission are one explanation and psychological problems are another.

There are various forms of stereotypy, and doctors can separate them into distinct categories. Common stereotypies are those that often occur in a normal population and society generally labels as “habits.” Young children tend to rock their bodies and suck their thumbs. Older children may obsessively bite their nails or play with their hair. Adults may also have common stereotypies, such as hair twirling, body rocking, or finger tapping on a surface.

Complex motor stereotypies are another group of repetitive movements and describe movements involving the limbs. Most often, it’s the hands and arms that create a movement that serves no useful purpose. Examples of complex motor stereotypies include arm flailing, finger wiggles, or wrist flexing.

Normal, healthy children can show complex stereotypies, and in these cases, a doctor calls the movements primary complex motor stereotypies. Children who have conditions such as autism and Tourette syndrome also tend to make complex motor movements, but because these appear to be caused by the condition, doctors call the movements secondary stereotypies. Sometimes secondary stereotypies can lead to injuries to the child, such as head banging or hair pulling.

When a child nods his head repeatedly, this falls into a distinct class of stereotypy. The nod can be a side-to-side shake of the head, an up and down movement, or a shrug of the shoulders. While normally developing children may show signs of this behavior, it could also be a sign of a developmental problem.

Tics are similar to stereotypies, but the muscle spasms that characterize tics are usually preceded by a mental impulse, whereas stereotypies are not. People who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may also express unusual movements, but these are not stereotypies, but rather look like an expression of restlessness. Some people who have anxiety-related disorder may also indulge in repetitive movements, but these are a control mechanism to reduce worry and fear, rather than stereotyping.

Since it is the brain that controls movement, scientists think that physical problems in the brain or psychological problems are the cause of medically significant stereotypies. Normally developing children may also receive comfort from stereotyping, such as thumb sucking. The release of frustration can be a cause of head banging and teeth grinding an expression of concern. Animals can also suffer from stereotypies, such as hair pulling or pacing, especially if they are in a boring environment.

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