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A Discussion of Stereotypic Behavior in Normal Infants And Developmentally Delayed Individuals (1985)

A Discussion of Stereotypic Behavior in Normal Infants And Developmentally Delayed Individuals (1985)

©1985, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (1985). A discussion of stereotypic behavior in normal infants and developmentally delayed individuals. Paper prepared for Mary McEvoy and Ken Denny, George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University.




A Discussion of Stereotypic Behavior in Normal Infants

And Developmentally Delayed Individuals


Dallas Denny


For Dr. Mary McEvoy and Ken Denny

Special Education 3410 

Spring, 1985




This paper defines stereotypic, or rhythmic, behavior. The stereotypies of normally developing infants are discussed and compared with the stereotypies of institutionalized individuals with developmental delays. Animal studies are cited, where relevant.

Stereotypic or rhythmic behaviors are sequences of motor acts which are relatively invariant, which are repeated frequently, and which have little apparent goal (Dawkins, 1980; Kiley-Worthington, 1977). They occur in a wide range of species in an equally wide variety of behavioral contexts (Hediger, 1959; Hutt & Hutt, 1965; Rushen, 1984). Stereotypic behaviors are normal components of human behavior, especially during the first year of life (Kravitz & Boehrn, 1971; Thelen, 1979, 1981); however the exhibition of stereotypies is often considered indicative of pathology or of an environment that is somehow nonsupportive (Rushen, 1984).

In developmentally delayed persons, stereotypic behavior is often called self-stimulatory behavior (Adams, et al., 1980; Harris & Wolchik, 1979). Self-injurious behavior is often topographically similar to stereotypic behavior, but is generally treated separately in the literature. The majority of institutionalized mentally retarded persons show some type of stereotypy (Adams, et al., 1980; Berkson & Davenport, 1962; Kaufman & Levitt, 1965; Tierney, et al., 1979), and stereotypy is one of the defining characteristics of autism (Rimland, 1964). Stereotypies are considered undesirable in the institutional setting because they are unattractive (Harris & Wolchik, 1979) and may interfere with learning (Forehand & Baumeister, 1976; Kaufman & Levitt, 1965). Therefore, a number of techniques have been used to reduce stereotypies in institutionalized retarded and autistic individuals (see Forehand & Baumeister, 1976, for a review).

The development and topography of stereotypic behaviors in developmentally delayed persons is not well known. Most workers agree on the types of stereotypies most frequently exhibited by institutionalized persons, but have rarely described adequately the topography of stereotypic behaviors. Body rocking, swaying, held shaking, hand waving, twirling, “pill rolling,” mouthing, and shaking of objects are frequently mentioned (cf Berkson & Davenport, 1962; Kaufman & Levitt, 1965; & Stevens, 1971). Typically, the behavior is described with a short phrase, for instance, as “body rocking” (Tierney, et al., 1979). Often, an attempt is made to operationally define the stereotypy, as with Stevens (1971):

… rocking behavior (is) thus defined: (a) All subjects must manifest a high probability of persistent back and forth torso rocking while seated either in a chair or on the floor. (b) The body rocking must be clearly defined as a stereotyped behavior, i.e., occurring at regular, persistent rates, varying in form only slightly, and continuing regardless of the environmental stimuli (p. 77).

The topography and developmental history of rhythmical behaviors in normally developing infants is better known. Thelen (1979, 1981) did an ethogram of the rhythmic behavior of normally developing infants. On the basis of observations of 16,000 bouts of stereotypic behavior, she was able to identify 47 distinct movements, including “kicking, rocking, waving, bouncing, scratching, banging, rubbing, thrusting, swaying, and twisting” (1991, p. 239). Many of the movements showed little variability, and fell well within the range of what ethologists call “fixed action patterns.” She found that the probability of different stereotypies varied with the age of the infant. Infants followed a clear developmental path, with behaviors emerging, peaking, and dropping out of the behavioral repertoire (Schwartz, et al., 1985).

Berkson and his colleagues (Schwartz, et al., 1985) have begun to examine the topography of repetitive behavior in severely mentally retarded children. They found topographic differences between the body rocking and hand gazing behaviors of normal infants and retarded children. Retarded children looked at their hands longer than normal infants, and engaged in repetitious movements of the hands while doing so; normal infants did not. Also, the retarded children gazed at their hands in several different body positions, while normal infants gazed at their hands only while in a supine position. The body rocks of retarded children had a greater amplitude than did the body rocks of normal infants; additionally, the retarded children rocked for longer periods of time.

The work of Kravitz and Boehm (1971) and Thelen (1981) indicates repetitive behaviors play an important role in normally developing infants. In contrast to Piaget’s (1952) concept of “secondary circular reactions,” a developmental stage at which infants experiment upon the world, and various psychodynamic and cognitive explanations which focus upon pathology (cf Brody & Axelrad, 1970; Freud, 1938; & Levy & Patrick, 1928), Kravitz & Boehm (1971) and Thelen (1981) more parsimoniously attribute the rhythmic behavior patterns of infants to normal motor development and the integration of simple repetitive patterns into voluntary motor patterns. Thelen attacks the problem from a number of perspectives, using Tinbergen’s (1951) formulation to ask (a) “What is the immediate causal mechanism of the behavior?”; (b) “How did the child grow to respond in this particular way?”; (c) “Why are stereotypic behaviors useful behaviors for a child to have?”; and (d) “What are the evolutionary origins of this behavior?” She was thereby able to identify antecedent factors in 84% of the 16,000 bouts of stereotypy she observed.

Most stereotypy seemed to be associated with a change of stimuli, for instance, appearance of a caretaker, or a change of state of arousal, for instance, “fussiness” or drowsiness. She found the typical response to these apparent eliciting stimuli changed with age with, for instance, a younger infant engaging in a generalized increase in activity, and with older infants showing more specific responses, such as crawling and reaching movements. She noted that rhythmic movements have communicative effects; for instance, parents told her “That’s her angry kick.” She hypothesized that rhythmic movements can elicit increased attention from caregivers. The adaptive advantage to this is obvious. Thelen was able to test this hypothesis by showing 20 second videotapes of infants to mothers of preschool children and to college students. Soundtracks of a “fussy” infant were dubbed onto videos of infants which (a) showed no movement; (b) moved randomly; (3) kicked rhythmically for a few seconds; and (4) kicked rhythmically throughout the presentation. Both groups of judges indicated that they would pick up the infant that kicked the most. Thelen also found that in different infants, percentage of time spent engaged in rhythmic activities ranged from about 5% to 40%. This was highly correlated with the amount of time the caregiver spent providing vestibular stimulation for the infant. “High stereotypy infants also were held less and talked to less and were more often placed in locations that restricted movements, such as infant seats and playpens” (1981, p. 242).

In animals, stereotypies have been shown to vary with changes in the environment and with presumed internal states. Rushen (1984), for instance, found tethered sows showed certain stereotypies directly before and directly after mealtimes. Other stereotypies did not seem to vary predictably with mealtimes. Behaviors which did seem to be associated with mealtimes were to some extent topographically similar to the natural food-seeking behavior of this species (e.g. movements of the forelimb and snout). The author notes the topography of the stereotypic behaviors did vary somewhat from actual food-seeking behaviors in pigs; this may have been due, however, to the concrete floor and to the confines of the small, artificial enclosure in which the sows were housed. Since the pigs were fed daily at the same time, and since a cart was noisily pushed around the piggery, there was a possibility that either (a) the behaviors were schedule induced); or (b) the behaviors were classically conditioned responses.

The classic social deprivation studies which were carried out in the 1950’s by Harry Harlow and his associates (1958, 1962), and which have been extensively replicated, produced abnormal stereotypic behaviors in rhesus monkeys and other primates which were reared in isolation from their mothers and/or from other monkeys. These monkeys were extremely poorly socialized, and engaged in high rates of body rocking, nonnutritive sucking, and other stereotypic behaviors. Monkeys showed a total of about five abnormal stereotypies, whereas chimpanzees showed at least 25. It must be understood that these deprived primates were highly abnormal individuals and their stereotypies were extremely pathological behaviors. Stereotypies seem to be extremely rare or nonexistent in monkeys and apes in naturalistic settings (Thelen, 1981). An exception was reported by Chevalier-Skolnikoff (1976,1977), who reported rhythmical behavior in gorillas. A good deal of caution should be exercised in generalizing this type of data to man.

In a deprivation study reminiscent of the Harlows’, Mason & Berkson (1975) found rhesus monkeys which were reared on artificial mothers which were mechanically moved about in the environment did not develop stereotyped body rocking. Control monkeys had a mother which was not moved about, and did develop body rocking. Harlow (1958) found that monkeys reared with a cloth-covered artificial mother seemed more self-assured and engaged in fewer stereotypies than did monkeys raised on wire-covered artificial mothers.

As is the case with animals, stereotypic behavior in normal infants and in developmentally delayed individuals has been shown to vary with various aspects of the environment and with presumed internal states of the individuals involved. Thelen (1981), for example noted that “fussy” babies, and sometimes drowsy babies showed higher rates of stereotypic behavior than did infants which were apparently content. Thelen also observed that infants which received high levels of vestibular stimulation from their caregivers engaged in rhythmic movements less often than did infants which received less stimulation.

As is the case with pigs, some stereotypies in institutionalized mentally retarded persons seem to vary with provision of meals (Kaufman & Levitt, 1965). And, as with pigs, the effects may be due to classical conditioning and scheduled-induced effects. A number of researchers have observed the effect of administration of psychoactive drugs upon the stereotypies of institutionalized individuals. Not surprisingly, findings have varied with drugs administered. For instance, Berkson (1965) found no effect on stereotypies with two levels of an amphetamine, two levels of a central nervous system depressant, and a placebo. Davis, et al. (1968) found an effect of Thorazine. Rates of stereotypies have also been found to vary with changes of tempo of music (Stevens, 1971), amount of toys and other objects in a room (Berkson & Mason, 1963), the amount of noise in the environment, levels of frustration (Forehand & Baumeister, 1971; Hutt & Hutt, 1970), changes in ward personnel (Kaufman & Levitt, 1965), and the presence or absence of other individuals (Berkson & Mason, 1963).

Results of the above experiments might at first seem contradictory, but Thelen (1981) notes that in autistic and retarded humans, as well as in chimpanzees, there seems to be a direct relationship between stereotypy and arousal and an inverse relationship between stereotypy and environmental complexity. This helps make sense of conflicting data such as that of Adams, et al. (1980), and Forehand & Baumeister (1970). Adams, et al. found provision of a television in a living unit for mentally retarded adults caused increased stereotypy. Forehand and Baumeister, on the other hand, found provision of color slides resulted in lower levels of stereotypy than did no visual presentation. In the presumably more tightly controlled setting of Forehand & Baumeister, the visual stimuli were probably the most predominant feature, whereas in the living unit of Adams, et al., the television may have added to an already confusing and disturbing level of noise and visual stimuli.

There have been a number of postulated causes of self-stimulatory behavior in institutionalized mentally retarded and autistic persons, but a discussion would be beyond the scope of this paper.

In conclusion, I can only say that I hope further investigations of rhythmic behaviors in normally developing humans and in animals will continue to shed light on the topographically similar behaviors of delayed individuals.



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