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Stereotypical Behavior in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a psychological disorder that is present in both children and adults. While adults can also have ASD, the onset of the disorder usually comes in about the first 3 years of the person’s life (Rodrigues, Goncalves, Costa & Soares 2013). A diagnosis is typically made shortly after these years but is not official until after the initial 3 years of a child’s life. This means that a child can show the signs of ASD before their third birthday but cannot yet be officially diagnosed.

Common traits of ASD include problems with sensory processing, social interactions, and communication (Laurent & Gorman 2018). Children with ASD can have a decreased reaction to stimuli, called hypo-reactivity, or an increased reaction to stimuli, known as hyper-reactivity . Children with this disorder can also have difficulties regulating their emotions. This can make it difficult for them to interact with others as they could be outcasted by their peers. However, the inability to control their emotions is not the only reason a child may become an outcast with his or her peers. Another feature of ASD that can lead to the outcasting of children are the stereotypical behaviors. These stereotypical behaviors are typically consistent vocal or motor behaviors that seems to an observer to not serve a purpose (Rodrigues et al. 2013). Much research is being conducted around these stereotypical behaviors and ways to decrease their occurrence in children with ASD.

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Stereotypical movements are characterized as repetitive and uncommon behaviors (Sadouk et al. 2018). These movements include both vocal and motor behaviors in children with ASD. Motor behaviors can include hand flapping, rocking of the body, and/or moving the fingers in front of his or her face (Losinski et al. 2017). These movements can differentiate a child from his or her peers to the point where the child is outcasted. The way that a child presents with a motor stereotyped behavior can look different from another child with ASD. One child may flap his hands while another move her fingers in front of her face. Other children may partake in more vocal mannerisms.

Stereotypical behaviors of the vocal category in children with ASD can present as echolalia (Grossi et al. 2013). Echolalia is a phenomenon where children who have ASD will repeat words or phrases that they have heard when trying to communicate with others . These repeated words can be ones that the child has recently heard or they can be words from a few days ago. Being able to communicate and interact with others means that the child must have developed a range of skills that allow them to share, understand, and respond to ideas while communicating with another person (Laurent & Gorman 2018). Stereotypical behaviors, both motor and vocal, can cause deficits in social interactions and communication skills as is commonly seen in children with ASD (Sadouk et al. 2018). Because the stereotypical behaviors and movements make interactions and communication with others more difficult, research has been done to find the source that triggers these mannerisms.

One theory behind what causes stereotypical behavior believes that the behaviors produce a sensory stimulation (Schmitz Olin et al. 2017). For children with ASD, their sensory processing may already be impaired. The stimulation they get from performing the stereotypical behaviors can cause them to obtain the sensory stimulation they need but are not getting from their environment. Another theory is that the behaviors are the result of an increase in anxiety in the child. This anxiety can be due to the presence of a new stimuli (Rodrigues et al. 2013), or to the feeling of uncertainty with their current situation (Wigham, Rodgers, South, McConachie, & Freeston 2015). Both of these scenarios have been accompanied with an increase in stereotypical behavior in their respective studies. Whether the response is to a new stimuli or an unpredictable situation, Losinski et al. (2017) writes that these mannerisms act as mechanism for coping with their environment. This stimulation they feel from the different mannerisms may become familiar and soothing to them aiding them in regulating their emotions. The anxiety that children with ASD feel when faced with an unfamiliar situation may cause them to participate in stereotypical behaviors in order to feel a sensory stimulation that feels more familiar to them.

While the theories discussed by Schmitz Olin et al. (2017), Rodrigues et al. (2013), Wigham et al. (2015) and Losinski et al. (2017) aim to explain both motor and vocal aspects of stereotypical behaviors, Grossi et al. (2013) proposed a different explanation for occurence of echolalia. They write that echolalia is the results of the child with ASD not being able to filter what they are hearing in the environment around them. Because of this the child relies on what he or she has heard in the background when trying to communicate with someone. This reliance results in the repetition of certain words of phrases. Regardless of the cause of the stereotypical behaviors, the consequence of these mannerisms causes children to have trouble interacting with peers and becoming a functional and integrated part of their community (Sadouk et al. 2018).

Although self-stimulating behaviors seem to decrease in occurence as children mature (Schmitz Olin et al. 2017), therapeutic interventions are still sought out by parents. One reason for seeking treatment involves the child’s ability to socially interact with peers. Losinski et al. (2017) gives the example of a child with ASD in a classroom setting. A child with ASD who continuously partakes in stereotypical behaviors can be a distraction to other students. This distraction can either be viewed as a source of irritation or entertainment by his or her peers and sets the student apart from them. For this child, therapy may be helpful in order to decreases the occurrence of the distracting behavior and create a more positive social experience. As with other types of disorders, there are many different routes that therapists can take to decrease the occurrence of stereotypical behaviors and improve a child’s social interaction skills.

One form of therapy for children with ASD involves the use of weighted or sensory stimulating objects such as a brush (Losinski et al. 2017). This type of therapy, referred to as deep pressure therapy, is commonly used by occupational therapists but does not receive much credible empirical support . The thought behind this form of therapy focuses on the stimulation aspect of the behaviors. The stimulation that the children receive from these objects are thought to reduce anxiety in the child, therefore reducing the stereotypical behavior. While this therapy style does not hold up well in studies, it is continuously used in therapy centers.

Another therapy route that Schmitz Olin et al. (2017) has found to have more success in therapy studies involves exercise. According to their study, a low intensity form of exercise for a short amount of time was able to significantly reduce stereotypical behavior in children. This form of therapy is not only beneficial in reducing the behavior, but is also a healthy, inexpensive, and simple form of therapy that teachers or parents can incorporate into the child’s daily routine. Schmitz Olin et al. (2017) speculated that the physical stimulation the child received from the exercise is similar to that received from the stereotypical behavior. However, more research would need to be done to support this theory. Another explanation for their results could be connected to an idea posed by Losinki et al. (2017). They proposed that the children were actually benefiting more from getting out of the situation and into a quieter place than from a deep pressure therapy approach. In Schmitz Olin et al.’s (2017) study, it is possible that the break from the classroom played a role in the decrease of the stereotypical behavior. If being in a classroom and following certain instructions is causing the child stress, removing him or her from the source would decrease their stress and, as a result, potentially decrease the occurrence of the stereotypical behavior. Whether the reduction is due to physical stimulation or a break from the classroom would require more research.

While there is a substantial amount of research done on ASD, there are still areas in need of further exploration. There are theories about why stereotypical behavior occurs in children with this disorder but a concrete connection has yet to be found. Some theories apply well to one person but do not fit another. So far, there is not one all encompassing explanation for the occurence of stereotypical behaviors. Along with testing theories, studies are being done to test the benefits, effectiveness, and lasting effects of different therapies both for children and adults. Further research in this area will allow children and adults to improve their social interactions and communication skills by reducing their stereotypical behaviors. Improving these areas through therapy will allow people with ASD to better integrate into their communities.


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