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Repetitive Body Movements in Autism

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One of the first indicators of autism in toddlers is repetitive body movements. 

From rocking back and forth, repeatedly kicking their legs, to flapping their hands quickly, there are many examples of repetitive motor behaviors in children.

Yet, repetitive body movements are not unique to children with autism. 

They have been observed in kids with schizophrenia, Rett syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

In fact, repetitive body movements are part of a child’s normal development. 

They’re considered crucial in a young person’s development as they try to understand how their bodies work.

The difference is that autistic children may have more intense repetitive body movements that may last beyond childhood.

So what are repetitive body movements, and how do they affect an autistic child?

Read on to learn more about this repetitive autism behavior and how the experts at Heartlinks can help.

What Are Repetitive Body Movements in Autism?

Repetitive body movements are often defined as highly selective, tireless, purposeless, and obsessive in nature.  

Child stimming on the ground

Scientifically speaking, repetitive body movements can be categorized into two separate groups. 

Rituals, routines, a narrow fixation on a subject, and an emphasis on sameness are all examples of “higher-order” repetitive behaviors.

Comparatively, examples of ‘lower-order” movements include hand flapping, tapping, and fidgeting.  

Autism experts also use the terms “stereotypy” and “perseveration” to describe the different types of repetitive behaviors.

“Stereotypy” refers to the continuous repetition of an act, such as opening and closing a drawer.

“Perseveration” refers to repeating words, phrases, or sounds a child has previously heard.

Are Repetitive Body Movements The Same As Stimming?

As a subgroup of repetitive body movements, stimming, also known as self-stimulatory behavior, can be seen in all children, not just autistic ones. 

Stimming usually begins at age three and is often seen when a child is excited, bored, stressed, or deeply absorbed in an activity. 

While stimming might seem identical to other repetitive body movements, it serves several purposes.

Stimming may:

Despite understanding how stimming can help an autistic child, sometimes family members don’t know why their child is stimming and quickly get frustrated. 

Additionally, if the child self-regulates publicly by pacing, repeating phrases aloud, or twirling, it is not socially acceptable behavior and can garner unwanted looks from others.

What Causes Repetitive Autism Behaviors?

That’s why it’s essential to understand the cause of your child’s repetitive body movements.

Unfortunately, there is no consensus within the autistic community regarding what causes repetitive behaviors. However, there are many theories, including the following. 


Consider using behavioral techniques if you believe your child is using repetitive body movements because they’re unwilling to complete a task  (i.e., homework) or refuse to listen.

There are several ways to curb this behavior, whether by using rewards, consequences, or other types of positive reinforcement.


If you think your autistic child is using repetitive body movements as a calming measure due to sensory overstimulation (i.e., strong odors, loud noise, or bright lights), try incorporating sensory integration techniques. 

Whether providing a pair of earphones so your child can stay in noisy environments or wearing a mask in particularly smelly situations, there are many ways to help calm your autistic child.


In the event that your autistic child’s repetitive body movements are a result of a chemical or neurological issue, you may opt for medication. 

This is one of the most effective ways to provide any type of relief from this source of repetitive body movements.  

Are Repetitive Body Movements Harmful?

The simple answer is, “It depends.”

Upset child holding his head

Thanks to these movements’ intensity and continuous nature, many autistic children cannot participate in regular activities such as attending school, enjoying birthday parties, playing on sports teams, or participating in social gatherings like going to the mall. 

In some extreme cases, repetitive body movements, such as a child repeatedly banging their head against a wall, can be dangerous. Continuously hitting a hard surface with such force might give them a concussion or result in severe cuts and bruises.

Repetitive body movements can be distracting for other children. It might prevent them from listening during class or completing their school work.

Finally, this type of behavior might be considered socially unacceptable and garner a lot of strange looks from others. Not only will this make it hard for your autistic child to make friends, but it may hurt their chances of getting a job as they age. 

Get The Help You Need from Heartlinks

Repetitive body movements and behaviors have been considered a part of autism since the neurological disorder was initially described. 

Yet, for many years, autism researchers focused on studying the communication and social deficits many autistic people experience. Therefore, repetitive body movements and behaviors were not adequately studied nor understood.

That has since changed over the past ten years. Researchers have come to understand how repetitive body movements and behaviors are pivotal to the definition of autism.

For more information on how you can help your child, contact Hearttlinks

We have the resources and expertise to help you understand and manage your autistic child’s repetitive body movements.

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