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Signs and Symptoms

Children with primary motor stereotypies perform repetitive, rhythmic, fixed movements that don’t seem to have a purpose, but are predictable in pattern and location on the body. These movements are involuntary and typically last for seconds to minutes, appear multiple times a day, and are associated with periods of engrossment, excitement, stress, fatigue or boredom. Sometimes they’re misdiagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorders or tics.

Understandably, motor stereotypies are often a cause of concern for parents. Will your child adapt well in school? Will this just go away? Could these movements be a sign of something more serious? Get answers to frequently asked questions about primary motor stereotypies.

Types and symptoms of primary motor stereotypies:

  • Common – As the name suggests, these behaviors are very common and include activities like thumb sucking, nail/lip biting, hair twirling, body rocking, self-biting, teeth clenching/grinding and head banging. Common motor stereotypies are often labeled “habits” and typically fade with age — though research has identified their presence in college students.
  • Head nodding – Child nods his head from side to side (“no”), up and down (“yes”), or shoulder to shoulder. The nodding is occasionally accompanied by up-gaze eye deviations or movements of the hands or feet.
  • Complex motor – Movements include hand/arm flapping or waving, wiggling fingers in front of the face, rotating or opening and closing the hands, and finger wiggling. Generally a child will simultaneously perform the movement bilaterally (on both the right and left sides). Learn how your child can be part of a clinical study on complex motor stereotypies.

motor stereotypies patient with parent and Dr Singer

When to see a doctor:

If your child has stereotypic movements without other signs of a developmental disability, it’s very possible that what you’re seeing is a primary motor stereotypy disorder. Either way, we advise that you visit your pediatrician to rule out other causes.

If your child has already been diagnosed with a movement disorder and you would like a second opinion, make an appointment with Johns Hopkins Pediatric Neurology.


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