Parents of children with autism often state that some of the first atypical behaviors they noticed in their children were repetitive movements such as hand flapping, body rocking, or pacing. These self-stimulation behaviors, or “stimming,” are one of the key parts of an autism diagnosis.
But what many people do not realize is how diverse these repetitive behaviors can be and the many different ways they can present themselves, as well as the fact that they do serve a very important purpose.
Why do people with autism stim?
To start with, let’s talk about why stimming is so prevalent and important for an individual. Stimming, as the name suggests, serves the purpose of providing a source of stimulation for an individual.
The reason an individual may feel a need for stimulation varies, and research has not been able to pinpoint even a specific set of catalysts since it truly seems to vary based on the individual. It could be that an individual feels overwhelmed, so they are stimming as a means of self-soothing. Or, it could be that the individual is bored, so they are stimming to provide themselves with something to do. It could be that they are struggling to remember the answer to a question and are stimming to try and remind themselves of what they were just thinking. Whatever the reason, stimming serves a purpose.
What does stimming look like?
The most readily apparent form of stimulation is motor. Some common forms include hand flapping, nail biting, hair twirling, leg shaking, or pacing. Sometimes it can unfortunately be a more intense and potentially dangerous method such as head banging or eloping (i.e. running away).
Another form of stimming is through routine and consistency, or sameness. For example, a child may have a meltdown over small changes such as a different parent picking him up from school, if one of his books has shifted slightly out of place, or if lunch is served a minute later than normal.
An intense absorption with an object, a part of an object, or a special interest or topic is another form of stimming. The child may be described as obsessed with bus schedules, a specific television show, or hammerhead sharks, far beyond the level of typical children. In this way, an individual may feel comfort by hugging their favorite stuffed animal, holding onto the same small red lego brick they’ve had since they were two or the random puzzle piece that they decided to pick up that morning and keep in their pocket all day, or by simply telling you everything there is to know about hammerhead sharks.
Is stimming something to worry about?
With so many different forms of stimming, it is important to identify if the behavior is dangerous to the individual and/or others, or if it is disruptive to the individual and/or those around them.
The examples mentioned above such as head banging or running away (i.e. eloping) are dangerous and the behavior needs to be addressed for safety purposes. But, if a child is sitting in school twirling their hair, there is no real harm to them or others, as with hand flapping, or pacing. As long as it’s not hurting anyone, and it helps the child remain focused and on task, you should feel free to allow it to continue.
Unfortunately, not everyone is accepting, and this kind of behavior may be concerning for a family when out in public, such as in a restaurant, and get in the way of everyday life.
Fortunately, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a form of behavior modification that we practice here at Ready Set Connect, may help reduce some of these repetitive stimming behaviors. The first key is to identify the purpose for the behavior through data collection, such as recognizing that a child is banging their head to self-soothe every time they hear a loud noise. The therapist will then work with the child on a less dangerous method of self-soothing, such as squeezing a stress ball. Another route might be to remove the stimulus, such as by putting on noise-reducing headphones, so the child no longer feels the need to bang their head.
One way to help a child who insists on sameness is to reward him for gradually tolerating more changes in his routine. A child who lines up his car in a specific order could be rewarded for tolerating a small change in the order, and then, gradually, rewarded for bigger changes.
Unfortunately, there are relatively few studies of effective treatments for behaviors such as insistence on sameness and intense special interests. However, intense special interests, while they may sometimes be distracting, have been found to help improve learning and appropriate behavior when used as a reward for accomplishing a less desirable task, or as part of a social activity. For example, a child with autism may be more likely to play with a friend if it involves their special interest, such as a number puzzle for a child focused with numbers. Looking towards the future, a special interest may lead to a successful career, such as Temple Grandin Ph.D., a person with autism who turned her special interest in animals into a notable career as an animal scientist and designer of livestock handling facilities.
It’s not always as straightforward as the examples listed above, but that’s what our trained professionals are here for at Ready Set Connect. Are you worried about your child’s stimming behaviors? We’re here to help!