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Looking at the definition of stereotypy is a good place to start when trying to understand some of its features as well as the underlying causes. Essentially, a stereotypy is a repetitive behavior which does not appear to serve a functional purpose towards any particular goal.
Any stereotypy definition offered at this point will be provisional, however, due to the incomplete state of current research on the subject. As Johns Hopkins University pediatric neurologist Dr. Harvey S. Singer writes in an overview of motor stereotypes: "Although such movements are required to be restricted, repetitive, and purposeless, their definition and included activities remain broad and imprecise." (Singer, 77) He concludes his analysis of motor stereotypy with a call for additional research in the future.
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Examples of Stereotypy
The term stereotypy has been applied to a wide range of behaviors, but some of the more typical examples include: rocking back and forth, self-touching, pacing, covering one's ears, and staring at an object. This list is far from exhaustive. The important features which must be present in order for a behavior to be labeled as a stereotypy include: repetition, lacking an apparent goal, and inappropriateness within a given context.
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Primary Stereotypy and Secondary Stereotypy
Motor stereotypes are often broken down into two categories. These are: Physiological (Primary) Stereotypy and Pathological (Secondary) Stereotypy. (Singer)
Physiological (Primary) Stereotypy describes repetitive behaviors that are found in normally developing children. They are further divided into common behaviors, head nodding and complex motor movements.
Pathological (Secondary) Stereotypy refers to stereotypes which are not typically found within the general population, and are usually present in individuals who have been diagnosed with a condition that is associated with repetitive behaviors. Aside from autism, this can also include Rett syndrome and various neurodegenerative disorders.
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Causes of Stereotypy
While scientists are continuously learning more about the different kinds of stereotypy as well as some of their underlying causes, there is still no consensus over what drives individuals to engage in these repetitive behaviors. Nevertheless, there are a number of proposed causes of stereotypy.
One idea is that these seemingly nonsensical movements are actually a means for non-verbal children to communicate their current emotional state. This is a particularly appealing explanation, given the linguistic deficits that are often associated with autism spectrum disorders.
Another interesting hypothesis is that these repetitive behaviors are a way for developmentally disabled children to alleviate things like stress and anxiety.
Yet another possibility is that children with autism and other developmental disorders use stereotypy as a therapeutic device. Citing earlier studies, educational researchers Melanie Nind and Mary Kellett explain: "It may be that the stereotyped behaviours provide a safe form of stimulation that is familiar, predictable and within the individual’s control." (Nind and Kellett, 278)
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Who is Affected by Stereotypy?
While the stereotypy definition outlined earlier focused on the repetitive behaviors that are often found in individuals suffering from autism spectrum disorders, the affect of stereotypes extends beyond the individual engaging in the stereotyped behavior.
Friends and family members are one of the main external parties that are most impacted by these behaviors. For example, while stereotypy is often found in autistic children, it also occurs in normally developing children as well. In fact, many researchers believe that this is an important part of cognitive development. (Nind and Kellett). These instances are referred to as physiological (or primary) stereotypes.
When a parent or guardian notices their child engaging in these repetitive behaviors, however, it can cause concern over whether or not the child may be autistic.
Outside of close relations, stereotypes also affect people who interact with autistic children. This is especially true for individuals who are less familiar with autism. When they notice that a child they are teaching or playing with is engaging in a motor stereotypy of some kind, they can sometimes feel nervous about how to respond.
One of the best ways to minimize these intrapersonal affects is to learn more and educate others about autism spectrum disorders and the behaviors that are associated with them.
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Dr. Harvey S. Singer's Profile. Johns Hopkins Medicine, Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery.
Nind, Melanie and Kellett, Mary. "Responding to individuals with severe learning difficulties and stereotyped behaviour: challenges for an inclusive era", European Journal of Special Needs Education, Vol. 17, No. 3 (2002), pp. 265-282.
Singer, Harvey S. "Motor Stereotypies", Seminars in Pediatric Neurology, Vol. 16, No. 2 (2009), pp. 77-81.