Understanding Stimming In Children With Autism
Stimming, also known as self-stimulatory behaviour, are unusual repetitive body movements or noises. Stimming is more common than we think. Everybody stims, but it is more noticeable and intense in some individuals than others. This is why it is often thought of as a common behaviour in individuals on the Autism spectrum as they might engage in unusual stimming that is higher in frequency and intensity. Stimming is often a coping behaviour that helps manage emotions or stressful situations, mostly a self-soothing behaviour. Although it is usually harmless, if needed, children can be taught to redirect or reduce their stimming behaviour. This might include adapting their environment to suit their needs.
In children with autism stimming can include:
- Movements of the hands and legs, hand flapping
- Rocking back and forth
- Spinning objects
- Repeating words or phrases
- Staring at lights or rotating objects such as fans
- Repetitive behaviours such as turning switches on and off
- Listening to the same sounds over and over again
- Walking on tiptoes
Observing when and under what circumstances your child engages in stimming can help you understand what causes it. It could be certain sounds, emotions or a particular environment.
Why do children stim?
Stimming can look different in different children and also vary in intensity and duration. It is not always easy to understand why they stim. It can be a coping behaviour which can include trying to
- Manage emotions such as anger, fear, excitement or joy
- Adapt to an unfamiliar environment
- Handle overstimulation or a sensory overload
- Reduce anxiety
- Express frustration when they are unable to communicate in other ways
- Avoid certain activities
Should you stop your child from stimming?
Although stimming maybe seen in typically developing children, (nail-biting, twirling hair), it is of more concern in children with autism. This is because, in autistic children, stimming can occur in high frequency and get out of control, thereby interfering in day-day living. In children with autism, the stimming is more obvious and the type of stimming can be seen as inappropriate or odd. Eg; a child flapping hands continuously or vigorously rocking back and forth. It might be a daily occurrence and can continue for hours at a time. Also, a child with autism is less likely to read social cues to understand how this behaviour might be affecting others around them.
Stimming can be seen as self-soothing behaviour that helps children manage certain emotions. However, if you feel that stimming negatively impacts your child or limits them in any way you can get help from a therapist.
Some harmful stimming behaviours are
- Excessive picking on scabs and sores
- Punching or biting
- Hair pulling
Stimming might need management if
- It prevents your child from participating socially
- Is disruptive at school
- Interferes with day to day activities
- Is harmful or destructive
Who can help and how
If you feel that your child’s stimming behaviour is excessive or harmful, you can get help from a professional. An Occupational Therapist or an Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) Therapist can help your child. The goal of therapy is to redirect and manage stimming than completely stopping it which can be stressful to the child. Instead, therapy focuses on helping children control their stimming.
Sometimes, changing the environment might be enough to stop the stimming behaviour. Eg; if a child feels overwhelmed at the park and starts stimming to manage the sensory overload, you might take them to a quieter place in the park or give them noise cancellation headphones to help them block out the noise.
Understanding what causes your child to stim is tremendously helpful in figuring out how to reduce it. This can be done by
- Eliminating or avoiding triggers
- Chalking out a routine that helps,
- Encouraging appropriate behaviour
- Avoiding punishing the behaviour
- Teaching alternate and acceptable behaviours.
If you are concerned about your child’s stimming and their safety, contact a doctor right away. Reach out to a therapist who can guide you on creating a safe environment for your child while teaching you how and when to intervene during any dangerous behaviour. Help is within reach.
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