As your child develops, you may find they start adopting some unhelpful repetitive behaviours. We explain what these mean and what you can do to encourage your child to learn and play without them.

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What are mannerisms and repetitive behaviours?

Children with a vision impairment often adopt what appear to be purposeless body movements or behaviours that they then repeat. Examples include:

  • Poking, pressing or rubbing their eye(s)

  • Gazing at a light

  • Flicking their fingers in front of their eyes

  • Flapping their hands

  • Shaking their head

  • Rocking

  • Becoming attached to familiar, tactile objects (which can become a problem if it stops them learning life skills, for example, needing both hands free to hold a spoon and fork)

  • Repeating phrases they have learned but using them inappropriately (known as echolalia)

Why do the behaviours happen?

There are a few factors that could be causing the behaviours:

  • Your child may adopt these behaviours because they’re seeking attention.

  • Or it may be because they’re experiencing discomfort in their eyes. It’s important to get medical advice to rule this out first.

  • If your child has a severe sight impairment, they won’t get the same clues about what’s going on around them as a sighted baby would in early development. This means they might find ways to entertain/stimulate themselves. Your child might press their eye because it provides a form of visual sensation, such as chemically triggering light or stars. Poking the eye can also provide a pleasant sensation as it feels very soft.

Josie’s confidence has improved so much since we found out about Guide Dogs’ services for children and young people. Now we have the freedom to ask for advice and for strategies that can make life easier, it means we can focus on being a family.
Roger, Josie's dad

What encourages these behaviours?

Repetitive behaviours often increase when your child is stressed, so it’s important that they feel confident and safe wherever they are and have people around them who are looking out for their wellbeing.

They may also increase when your child is tired, bored, agitated or excited.

What can I do to help?

It’s a good idea to seek medical advice first, so that you can rule out any physical reason for your child’s repetitive behaviours. If you’re worried about your child damaging their eyes, you could get them a pair of non-prescription glasses.

There are many things you can do to help your child play and learn, which will distract them from the repetitive behaviours:

  • As your baby gets older, play with them and teach them to explore objects with their hands, finding differences in shape and touch.
  • Collect different objects or toys in small containers and put them close to your child, so they can search for and find them.
  • Make sure your child has somewhere comfortable to sit and play. You could tie objects or toys to their chair, so that your child can find them if they fall off.
  • With a young child, use tactile or sound-making wrist and ankle bands.
  • If your child is rocking, there’s nothing wrong with doing that on a piece of equipment that rocks, this can help them not do it at other times.

In the first 18 months, your baby will need a lot of extra support from you to learn and develop. However, it’s also important that they learn to play alone in a way that means they don’t start adopting repetitive behaviours.

As your child gets older, it’s OK to remind them to stop the repetitive behaviour by using positive reinforcement, “you’re playing really well with your bricks”, for example.

Talking to your child as you move around is very important so that they understand that you’re close and learn to locate where you are.

Repeating phrases

Echolalia (repeating phrases) develops as speech does – your child hears a phrase but doesn’t always make the link to its meaning. For example, they’ll hear a commonly used greeting such as “hello, how are you?” and use it randomly. It gets a reaction from the adult and your child then uses it all the time.

This happens with sighted children too, but they can see how the person reacts and they quickly learn to use the phrase appropriately.

Echolalia only becomes a problem if it interferes with communication. In that situation, you should positively reinforce your child’s sensible conversation.

A young girl with a toy in her hand

Why is it important to limit mannerisms and repetitive behaviours?

The main reason is that some of the behaviours are socially unacceptable. They also emphasise the difference between children, making a child with a vision impairment stand out from the others.

Repetitive behaviours can also interfere with your child’s learning if the child becomes too dependent on the stimulation they provide.

Try to be aware of these behaviours from the start – as soon as you see your child showing one, find a way to distract them. Offer them something else to do that’s more exciting and that will make the behaviour less interesting to your child. It’s also better to focus on the behaviours you want to encourage rather than giving attention to the ones you want to stop.   

If you have concerns about your child's repetitive behaviours...

Please get in touch with us to chat about how we can help you.

0800 781 1444