Stereotypies in Autism: Characteristics and How to Address Them

Stereotypies in autism help children to calm down and regulate themselves. We'll tell you what they are and how to address them.
Stereotypies in Autism: Characteristics and How to Address Them
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 23 December, 2022

Children with autism sometimes perform repetitive and seemingly purposeless behaviors that are quite striking. These are called stereotypies, or “stims”, and can range from hand flapping to rocking or emitting guttural sounds. These behaviors help them regulate themselves and can provide relief and pleasure. However, stereotypies in autism may need to be reduced, eliminated, or replaced in certain cases.

Stereotypies aren’t unique to autism. They can also appear in children with ADHD or even in those who don’t present any specific condition. However, in autism, these are also called self-stimulations and are related to the sensory processing of these children. If you want to know more about stereotypies in autism, we invite you to keep reading.

Stereotypies in autism

Stereotypies, as their name suggests, are stereotyped, repetitive, and non-purposive movements. That is, they have no apparent meaning, purpose, or concrete purpose. In addition, they have a variable duration and, although they may cease if the child is distracted, they’re recurrent. In addition, they only occur when the child is awake and disappear when they’re sleeping.

They can manifest themselves differently in each child, but these are some of the most common examples:

  • Hand flapping
  • Swaying of the body back and forth
  • Peculiar movements of hands and fingers
  • Repetitive movements with the legs
  • Jumping
  • Clapping hands
  • Clenching the jaw
  • Shouting
  • Repeating words or syllables
A child sticking out his tongue and holding a teddy bear during a therapy session.
Stereotypies can be motor (body movements), such as rocking, jumping, or hand flapping; or verbal (sound emissions), such as shouting or the repetition of words.

Why do stereotypies occur?

It’s important to understand that these repetitive behaviors obey a cause. Stereotypies or self-stimulations arise mainly for the following reasons.

Overstimulation

In some environments, children are exposed to an excess of sensory stimuli that exceed their tolerance threshold. Bright lights, loud noises, or crowds of people are too much for them to process. Therefore, these children find in stereotypies a way to regain their balance.

Lack of stimulation

Sometimes the opposite is true. When children don’t receive sufficient stimulation, they become bored and, therefore, resort to self-stimulation. This can occur, for example, in situations where they have to wait.

Emotional overflow

Novel situations, especially social ones, can be stressful for children with autism. Therefore, if they find themselves in an unfamiliar environment that overwhelms them or that they perceive as threatening, they use stereotypies to calm themselves and reduce their anxiety.

But these are also used as a form of emotional expression or as a way of externalizing or communicating fear, anger, pain, or joy. So, they’re not always related to negative emotions.

Finally, it’s also common for them to appear in those situations in which the child feels that too much is demanded of them, they don’t understand, or what’s being asked of them is too complicated. If the demands of the environment exceed the abilities or skills available at the time, the child may resort to stereotypies.

When a child with autism feels that too much is being demanded of them, they may resort to stereotypies in order to regulate themself.

Should stereotypies in autism be corrected?

Before discussing how to address these self-stimulations, it’s important to emphasize that there’s an open debate on this issue. Many adults with autism, as well as several authors, researchers, and experts, defend the right of these individuals to maintain their stereotypies. They understand that these are valuable resources insofar as they help self-management and self-regulation and don’t cause harm.

Sometimes, neurotypical people fail to understand the reality of those with autism and seek to mold them to the norm without respecting their particularities. But, as we see, these stereotypies are a form of emotional expression and an aid for the management of anxiety. Therefore, as long as they don’t cause discomfort, difficulties, and interferences, there’s no obligation to eliminate them.

When to eliminate stereotypies in autism

However, there are situations in which they can be a problem. For example, when the child enters a cycle where self-stimulation leads to isolation from the environment and excessive self-absorption. But, above all, it’s important to address the skill deficits that lead to the need for stereotypies.

Therefore, in order to intervene, it’s essential to understand at what times they occur, in the face of what type of stimuli, or in what environments, and why. From here, the necessary adjustments can be made:

  • Reduce the level of demand
  • Offer stimulation to avoid boredom
  • If the environment is too stimulating, remove the child from the environment and offer compensatory stimulation (such as cuddling)
  • Teach social skills and communication strategies
  • Train the child in relaxation techniques and emotional expression

Determine whether the stereotypy helps or harms the child

If you desire to specifically focus on reducing or eliminating stereotypies, behavioral techniques can be used. Reinforcing behaviors that are incompatible with stereotypy or applying correction techniques are some of the most used and effective methods. In any case, we should always consider whether self-stimulation helps or limits the child and what the underlying deficits are.

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The contents of You Are Mom is for educational and informational purposes only. At no time do they replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment from a professional. If in doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.