Individuals with autism can exhibit both typical and atypical characteristics, which are caused by differences in the brain. Those on the spectrum do not have a certain physical trait that signifies that they have autism, such as those with Down Syndrome or Muscular Dystrophy; however, they do tend to have behavioral, social/emotional, and communicative traits that set them apart from the average person.
According to the CDC, someone with autism might:
● Not respond to their name by 12 months of age
● Not point at objects to show interest (point at an airplane flying over) by 14 months
● Not play “pretend” games (pretend to “feed” a doll) by 18 months
● Avoid eye contact and want to be alone
● Have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their feelings
● Have delayed speech and language skills
● Repeat words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
● Give unrelated answers to questions
● Get upset by minor changes
● Have obsessive interests
● Flap their hands, rock their body, or spin in circles
● Have unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look or feel
One of these behaviors in particular—called stimming—has a specific purpose (or multiple), yet can be potentially dangerous or maladaptive.
The term stimming is short for self-stimulatory behavior and is a common symptom of autism. Examples of stimming are individuals who flap their hands, rock back and forth, spin around, get up and down, hit themselves, hum, pace around, make loud noises, bang their head, or repeat the same word or phrase. Any behavior that is stimulating for the individual with autism is considered stimming, and stimming in children with autism can happen for a variety of reasons.
There are several functions of the behavior for a child with autism who practices stimming. “Repetitive behaviors may offer these individuals a way to calm their anxiety, generate or maintain awareness of their bodies, focus their concentration or deal with overwhelming sensations or emotions. They may also help autistic people communicate their mental or emotional state to others,” (Spectrum News). Overall, stimming is a way for children to self-regulate and/or a response to the sensory processing disorder that can often coincide with autism. Many types of self-stimulatory behaviors can be quite helpful to a child with autism
Positive Consequences of Stimming
Many people, with autism or not, engage in self-stimulating behaviors. Sometimes these behaviors are merely a habit, like rocking back and forth or fidgeting, or they are used as coping or calming mechanisms to deal with anxiety and/or surroundings that are a huge sensory overload. Individuals with autism may stim when they feel out of control and need to perceive/maintain control once more.
Temple Grandin, who is a leading advocate in the field of autism and who has autism herself, speaks about stimming from her own experience:
“When I did stims such as dribbling sand through my fingers, it calmed me down. When I stimmed, sounds that hurt my ears stopped. Most kids with autism do these repetitive behaviours because it feels good in some way. It may counteract an overwhelming sensory environment, or alleviate the high levels of internal anxiety these kids typically feel every day.”
Since stimming can help regulate emotions, doing so appropriately (not harming self or others or being excessively disruptive) can help children with autism focus more in the classroom and prevent outbursts or meltdowns. Those who stim with high anxiety may feel much relief afterward.
When something has a positive effect, there typically are negative effects as well. There is a downside to individuals using stimming behaviors if they begin to become inappropriate.
Negative Consequences of Stimming
Some children with autism who stim may do so in a way that is harmful to themselves or others, harmful to property, and/or disruptive to the learning or social environment; this is especially if the child is in a mainstream, inclusive classroom with typical children as peers. Examples of stimming behaviors that yield a negative consequence include head banging, biting, slapping, skin or nail picking, pulling hair out, excessive screaming, and physical meltdowns that need restraint. Behaviors that are self-injurious or aggressive can result in injury, infection, or even a hospital visit; and very disruptive behaviors can impede the learning of the child with autism and of others in the classroom or social setting.
How to Manage Stimming
If stimming becomes inappropriate and is difficult to manage, parents have options such as family or individual therapy to address it, and teachers have behavioral specialists who can guide them in how to replace behaviors.
According to the experts at Good Therapy, family therapy can help to:
● Address and manage overwhelming sensory environments.
● Develop strategies for managing the emotions and sensations that trigger stimming.
● Address conflicts between caregivers about how best to manage stimming.
● Determine whether a person is stimming because of an underlying neurological or mental health issue.
● Help caregivers differentiate age-typical stimming from stimming that may signal a problem.
They also state that individual therapy:
● Helps a person manage harmful stimming behavior such as head-banging.
● Offers different strategies, such as meditation, for managing anxiety.
● Helps a person talk to loved ones about stress and frustration.
● Offers alternative stimming options that may be less disruptive or harmful.
● Helps an autistic person better control their sensory environment by identifying and addressing triggers for stimming.
● Supports a person in advocating for their needs, including disability accommodations, at work, or school.
It is best to allow experts to determine the reason, or function, for the use of stimming behaviors in a child with autism. Once the function has been identified, a team can come together to determine a treatment plan, goals, and more appropriate replacement behaviors that will positively reinforce the child. Some children on the spectrum can learn to choose a non-aggressive behavior over an aggressive one, although some cannot independently make that decision themselves. In the latter case, it is up to the adults in the child’s life to monitor and intervene.
Stimming has its pros and cons; but regardless of the outcome of a stimming occurrence, most children with autism begin the act as a means of self-regulation. Adults who work with those on the spectrum should be educated on stimming behaviors and how they can best help the children succeed academically, socially, and emotionally.
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