Self-Stimulating behavior

Self-stimming refers to the act of doing repetitive behaviors such as rocking, hand flapping, finger flicking, humming, toe walking, jumping, using echolalia, and even self-injury. There are many more possible behaviors that a child on the Autism spectrum might present with. ‘Stimming’ is often a way for a child (or an adult) to deal with a stressful situation, to deal with sensory dysfunction, or simply a way to retreat into one’s self.

Most of the time, professionals and parents refer to stimming as something that has to be curbed, stopped, or made more appropriate. I’ve thought in the past that stimming needed to be stopped entirely, however; I now believe that stimming occurs for a reason and sometimes it’s ok to stim (as long as we exclude self-injury).

Think about it this way, we all do things that technically speaking, could be considered stimming. We listen to music with headphones as we walk down the road, we curl up with a good book, we draw, we piddle around in the yard, basically, we do things to relax and to retreat into a world that allows us to de-stress. We all are guilty of having stims.

For neurotypical people, it’s pretty easy to just turn the music off, shut the book, put down the pencil, and come in the house. We transition quite nicely from relaxing to doing something else. Children on the spectrum can often get ‘lost’ in a stim and retreat so far into themselves that it’s hard to bring them back to the surface where the rest of us are. They don’t transition as well from the stim to doing something else.

I’ve watched my son, come home take off his shoes and start humming that wonderful 3-note tune as soon as he walks through the door. Kind of like when you get back from a long day at work, take your shoes off, put your feet up, and watch Sportscenter (or whatever!). I’ve come to realize that stimming isn’t the end of the world and it really only becomes a problem when a child gets ‘lost’ in the stim and can’t come out of it on their own, does it more often than not, stims to the point that it severely interferes with the learning process, or when it involves any self-injury.

I’m a firm believer that stims should be allowed (I’m speaking about young children here) to some degree (except self-injury). Really, they are a way of coping with a world that’s out of control and a body that often can’t be controlled.

If your child’s way of stimming happens to be playing with water, staring at the blinds, humming, rocking, or whatever than treat any underlying sensory issues with an OT, and allow for some freedom and flexibility when it comes to stimming (at least to the same degree you allow yourself to ‘relax’).

Of course, the goal is to keep brining your child into your world to communicate, to learn, to connect—but we also have to remember their world and their priorities aren’t always the same as ours. We may say to ourselves, ‘man I can’t wait to get home and put my feet up and flip through the channels’ while your person on the Autism spectrum may be thinking, ‘man I can’t wait to get home and watch the water fall through my hands’. While these two are drastically different in what society accepts as normal, they are both ways to relax.

Another way to view self-stimulatory behavior is that they are a way of fending off the meltdown for young children. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’ve decided to take your little one to McDonald’s to eat and you’ve chosen a nice time of day when there isn’t likely to be large groups of people eating there. Everything is going all hunky dory until a bus pulls up with 50 rowdy high school kids coming home from a football game. It’s too late to leave—you’ve just ordered your food and you’ve got to wait till it comes out.

Now 50 kids rush in the building, talking, yelling, laughing, and bumping into each other and you and your little one. Your little one takes this about as well as a claustrophobic in a crawlspace. And in order for your child to make it through the next few minutes he starts humming away at his favorite three note tune (or any other stim). At this point, I’m guessing that this kid is trying not to lose it and the stim holds the world in place as much as possible.

You, on the other hand, have two choices here. You can try to stop the stim and see what happens or you can just let it slide. Total meltdown or stim? Hmmm, I’m gonna go with ‘stim’ on this one. If it’s absolutely something you as a parent just can’t deal with, how about some type of compromise? Our route has been to try to make the stims something we can deal with but also allows Ewan to access that kind of self-calming mechanism. In the case of the 3-note tune, we’ve now been able to get Ewan to sing or hum actual songs. If people stare, we just say he loves music, so what. If the rocking is too much for you, try getting your child to substitute that for tapping their hand on their leg or using some type of squish ball or other sensory equipment / toy.

Working with a professional OT to deal with sensory dysfunction and allowing your child some flexibility or more socially appropriate stimming is often a much more realistic approach than stopping them entirely. Occupational Therapists, that specialize in sensory integration, are well versed in substituting socially inappropriate stims for something more functional.

Again, as in dealing with any part of Autism, some things take patience and perseverance and this part is no different. As long as the stims aren’t self-injurious, interfering with the learning process or aren’t too socially unacceptable, I’d say relax your stance on stimming a bit. Self-injury ALWAYS needs to be addressed because even slight problems with this can balloon out of control.

If your child is doing any type of self-injury it is important to discuss this with your child’s physicians and therapists to find effective ways to end this type of behavior.

Originally posted on The Autism Life

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