What is Stereotypy? - Definition & Examples

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

Repetitive habitual behaviors can indicate a condition known as stereotypic movement disorder. This lesson will define stereotypy and provide examples of stereotypic behaviors.


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

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