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Motor stereotypies are repetitive, seemingly purposeless movements most commonly seen when a young child is excited, stressed, frustrated, bored or engrossed in their imagination. They can happen multiple times a day for seconds to minutes at a time. The child may be aware of their movements and can be distracted from them. The movements do not change over time, and look characteristic or similar when they occur.
Up to sixty per cent of children will have stereotyped movements like these between the ages of two and five years old. They do not cause harm and do not need specific treatment.
Motor stereotypies can occur in children with developmental problems such as autism, learning, speech or coordination difficulties. They can also occur in otherwise healthy, typically developing young children (up to seven per cent). Many children enjoy some aspects of the movements, and some report it helps their imagination.
We do not fully understand the underlying cause of motor stereotypies, but there is likely a neurobiological component. Importantly, they are not harmful.
Motor stereotypes are diagnosed by a Paediatrician or Neurologist. No specific tests are required to diagnose them. Your paediatrician or neurologist may ask you to describe or imitate the movements, and describe situations in which they are observed. Home videos can also be helpful for diagnosis.
Motor stereotypies tend to remain stable over time. Children do not ‘grow out’ of them. The movements may lessen as children grow older and become more socially aware. Parents can gently guide and teach their young child about when it is or is not acceptable to engage with their motor stereotypies. Some older children and adolescents may continue to choose to engage with their stereotypies in socially appropriate situations, such as at home.
Motor stereotypies do not need treatment with medication or specific therapy. Behavioural strategies can be helpful if stereotypies are troubling your child or interfering with their daily activities. These strategies are most successful when the child is socially aware and motivated to stop their stereotypies. This is usually difficult in young children under the age of seven years.
If you are worried about your child’s movements, or their learning, concentration or development.
Are stereotypies harmful?
No, stereotypies are not harmful. Many children enjoy some aspects of the movements.
Are there treatments for stereotypies?
Specific treatment for stereotypies is not usually needed. Medications are not generally helpful in supressing stereotypies. Behavioural therapy may be helpful for the motivated child who engages with their stereotypies too much that it stops them from participating in their usual activities.
If my child has stereotypies, does it mean they will have learning difficulties?
Stereotypies can occur in typically developing healthy children as well as children with learning difficulties, concentration concerns or autism. If you are concerned about your child’s learning or development, you should discuss further with your doctor.
Developed by The Royal Children's Neurology department. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.
Reviewed June 2022.
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