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Stereotypic Movement Disorder: Understanding Repetitive Movements in Children

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

Repetitive movements, also known as stereotypies, are actions that some kids do over and over. These movements have a set pattern and can include things like tapping a pencil, twisting hair, or biting nails. They're most common in kids with neuro-developmental conditions like autism or intellectual disability, but they can also happen in kids who are typically developing.

There are two kinds of stereotypies: common and complex. Common ones, like pencil tapping or nail biting, happen in about 20% of kids. Complex ones involve more varied movements, like flapping arms or making different hand gestures.

Just because a child does these movements doesn't mean they have autism. Sometimes, kids who are developing typically can do them too. These movements might be linked to biology or other factors in the environment. They can happen when a child is really focused on something, feeling bored, stressed, excited, or tired.

Can these repetitive movements go away on their own? For some, yes. They might slow down or stop over time. But if the movements are more complex, they're more likely to stick around into adulthood.

As for medication, there's no specific medicine for these movements in typically developing kids. If a child has other conditions like ADHD, OCD, or autism along with the movements, certain medicines might help. But they can have side effects like making a child feel less interested or gaining weight. It's important to talk to a doctor about the pros and cons of any suggested medications.

Treatment for Stereotypic Movement Disorder often involves behavioral interventions. These help by encouraging different actions to replace the repetitive ones. This can reduce symptoms by a lot, sometimes up to 90%. But it's a lot of work and needs daily practice. It works best when the child is on board and motivated to make a change.

Encouraging relaxation exercises and mindfulness practices can also be helpful. They can calm down the nervous system and improve self-awareness. This can lead to less stress and anxiety, and overall better feelings.

It's worth thinking about whether treatment is necessary. Some might find that trying to change these movements could be counterproductive or even harmful. It's natural to want to help when a child does something unusual, but it's important to consider if treatment is the best option. The autism community, in particular, has been speaking out about the potential harm of trying to stop these movements. Acceptance of neuro-diversity, or celebrating the differences in how people's brains work, is becoming more common. Instead of trying to make everyone the same, we're learning to appreciate and respect those with unique perspectives and behaviors.

If you're concerned about your child's repetitive movements and are looking for compassionate support and effective strategies, our therapist practice specializes in helping neurodiverse children thrive. Our experienced therapists understand the complexities of stereotypic movements and offer tailored interventions to support your child's unique needs.

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