Do you bite your nails? Wrap your fingers? Twirl your hair? Or bite your lip? Do these repetitive behaviors help you to calm down? Do they express your anxieties or reveal your insecurities?
If your answer was “Yes” to any of the questions above, then you have “stereotypy”.
What is stereotypy and stereotyped behavior? Stereotypy is defined as repetitive, or ritualistic body movements or verbal utterances that serves no social function. It is frequently seen in people with autism, as well as individuals with sensory, intellectual or developmental disabilities, schizophrenia or other mental disorders. However, all of us have little idiosyncrasies and many of us have repetitive or ritualistic behaviors that would qualify as stereotypy.
For many people, these behaviors tend to go unnoticed as they don’t typically interfere with other people and what is happening in the environment. For people on the autism spectrum however these behaviors can be much more pronounced, such as rocking, flapping their hands or twirling in circles. They can also be accompanied by vocal sounds and utterances that draw a lot of attention and might be viewed as disruptive and socially unacceptable. We don’t always know why people engage in these behaviors but they serve some function for everyone who engages in them. For some, it reduces anxiety, is self soothing or may be attempts at communicating.
A great question that came from a student was, “What can we do if we see that our friend with autism is having a hard time?” This is a really good question and comes from a place of empathy. Often times, people on the spectrum can become overwhelmed by the amount of sensory stimulation around them. Noises can be heard louder, lights can be perceived brighter, and unannounced changes to their schedule can all be very upsetting. Sometimes, stereotypy can act as a way to self regulate.
The answer to what you can do may include: giving them some space, being perceptive about what is happening in the environment such as a very noisy classroom, and/or other changes in the environment. You may help by reducing the sensory onslaught by perhaps asking others to try and quiet down a bit, offer headphones, turn lights up or down. Read here for other suggestions.
Most of all be patient, be empathetic and be a friend.