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For parents of children with visual impairments

American Foundation for the Blind® | National Association of Parents of Children with Visual Impairments

Repetitive Behaviors: What Are They?

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Fourteen-month-old Skyler sat on the floor in the child care room at the synagogue one Friday evening while her parents talked with the woman in charge. When the woman noticed that the toddler was poking her eyes, she bent down toward her, saying, "Oh, you must be tired. Let's get you a quiet place to take a nap." But Skyler wasn't poking her eyes because she was sleepy.

Families of some children with visual impairments may find that their children repeatedly behave or act in ways that can be confusing to sighted observers. Several terms used to describe these behaviors include stereotypical behaviors, mannerisms, self-stimulatory behaviors, and "blindisms." Regardless of what the behavior is called, it's important to understand why it's happening and what you can do about it.

These behaviors, which can differ among children, include:

  • Eye poking or pressing - some visually impaired children repeatedly poke or press their hands or fingers on or in their eyes. Before trying to change that behavior, make sure it's not happening because your child's eyes hurt. Find out from your eye care specialist if there's a possible medical explanation.
  • Hand flapping - some children flap their hands when they're excited and stop after a little while as they calm down. This can happen repeatedly for no apparent reason.
  • Rocking - a child may rock back and forth or from side to side either while sitting or standing. For some children the behavior increases as they become more excited.
  • Light gazing - light is very stimulating for some children. They may enjoy staring at a lamp or a sunny window and may also flick or wave their fingers in front of their eyes to cause the light to make patterns.
  • Head shaking - a child may shake his head from side to side repeatedly even though he's not saying "no." Some babies are especially prone to do this when lying in their crib or on their back on the floor.

Why Children Exhibit These Behaviors?

There is no one agreed-on theory about why some visually impaired children engage in stereotypical behavior, which is also sometimes seen in children with a variety of other disabilities. One theory is that a child may not be getting as much stimulation from the environment as sighted children do. Since he can't see everything a sighted baby sees, he seeks stimulation from within himself. Another theory is that some visually impaired children don't play with toys or socialize the way sighted babies do, so behaviors that all babies engage in from time to time become more of a habit. Once that happens, it's difficult to change or redirect the behavior and help the child learn more socially acceptable ways of expressing excitement or boredom.

What You Can Do To Change Stereotypical Behavior

Most people engage in some behavior that's self-stimulatory that they do without thinking—jiggling their knees or cracking their knuckles, twirling their hair or clicking a pen repeatedly. People tend to do this when they're bored, nervous, or worried. Often we don't realize we're exhibiting these behaviors, and others may not either, because they fall into the "socially acceptable" category. But the stereotypical behaviors some visually impaired children engage in aren't seen as socially acceptable and may be considered highly unusual by many people. It may be helpful to work with your child to replace that behavior with another that's viewed as more socially acceptable.

Babies need pleasurable physical activity. One way to change your baby's stereotypical behavior is to help him find stimulation in acceptable ways. For example, when you introduce him to a variety of toys, give him a reason to use his body, particularly his hands, to explore and play with these new objects. Once he's involved in a stimulating activity, he's less likely to think of poking his eyes or shaking his head. Refocusing your baby's attention from stereotypical behavior to a different, pleasurable activity can help to wean him from that habit. Toys aren't the only useful distractions—you might sing a song together, tickle him, or play patty-cake.

Try not to scold your baby if you see him engaging in self-stimulatory behavior. He may quickly learn that he can get your attention, even if it's negative, by doing that. Instead, try to redirect his behavior.

Remember to give your child attention and praise when, for example, he isn't rocking or poking his eyes while waiting to pet the pony at the petting zoo. Giving him a big hug and telling him you're proud of the way he's waiting his turn is a good way to reinforce that behavior.

As your child becomes more aware of other children, let him know that most others don't have the habit you're trying to break him of. Let him know, in some way that doesn't make him angry or embarrassed, how others respond to his behavior. "There's a little girl in the sandbox who looks scared because you're waving your hands around. If you keep them still she might come and play with you." It can be hard for young children to understand how others perceive them, so your child may not be ready for this type of feedback.

Ask family members and friends not to encourage your child's self-stimulatory behavior because that will make it harder for him to break the habit as he gets older. At the same time, make it clear that you don't want them to scold or tease him about it. They can help distract your child from these behaviors by playing with him or in some other way engaging him in an activity. If they're interested in finding out more about these behaviors, you might want to suggest that they take a look at FamilyConnect.

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