Stimming – or self-stimulatory behaviour – is common in children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It usually won’t harm your child, but it’s normal to worry about how it affects your child’s learning and socialising. Skill development, environment changes and behaviour strategies can help.

About stimming and autism spectrum disorder

Stimming – or self-stimulatory behaviour – is repetitive or unusual body movement or noises.

Many children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) stim and might keep stimming throughout their lives. They use stimming to manipulate their environment to produce stimulation, or because they have trouble with imagination and creativity and can’t think of other things to do, like pretend play.

The amount and type of stimming varies a lot from child to child. For example, some children just have mild hand mannerisms, whereas others spend a lot of time stimming. 

Stimming might include:

  • hand and finger mannerisms – for example, finger-flicking and hand-flapping

  • unusual body movements – for example, rocking back and forth while sitting or standing

  • posturing – for example, holding hands or fingers out at an angle or arching the back while sitting

  • visual stimulation – for example, looking at something sideways, watching an object spin or fluttering fingers near the eyes

  • repetitive behaviour – for example, opening and closing doors or flicking switches

  • chewing or mouthing objects

  • listening to the same song or noise over and over.

Stimming isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t hurt your child. But some stimming can be ‘self-injurious’ – for example, severe hand-biting.

Stimming can also affect your child’s attention to the outside world, which in turn can affect her ability to learn and communicate with others.

For example, if your child is flicking his fingers near his eyes, he might not be playing with toys so much and not developing his play skills. When he’s older, if he’s absorbed in watching his hands in front of his eyes in the classroom, he’s not engaged with his schoolwork. If he’s pacing around the area in the playground, he’s missing valuable social opportunities.

We all use stimming sometimes. For example, some children suck their thumbs or twirl their hair for comfort, and others jiggle their legs while they’re working on a difficult problem or task. You might pace up and down if you’re anxious, or fiddle with a pen in a boring meeting.

Why children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder stim

Stimming might happen because children and teenagers with ASD are:

  • oversensitive to the world around them – stimming can calm them down because it lets them focus on just one thing and takes away some of the sensory overload

  • undersensitive to their surroundings – stimming like hand-flapping or finger-flicking can stimulate their ‘underactive’ senses

  • anxious – stimming might calm them down and reduce anxiety by focusing their attention on the stim or by producing a calming change in their bodies

  • excited – some children with ASD might flap their hands when they’re excited. They sometimes flap for a long time when they’re excited, or flap, squeal and jump up and down at the same time.

Helping your child with stimming

Stimming often reduces as your child develops more skills and finds other ways to deal with sensitivity, understimulation or anxiety.

But there are also several things you can do to help your child with stimming.

Changing the environment 

If your child finds the environment too stimulating, she might need a quiet place to go, or just one activity or toy to focus on at a time.

If your child needs more stimulation, he might benefit from music playing in the background, a variety of toys and textures, or extra playtime outside.

Some schools have ‘sensory rooms’ for children with ASD who need extra stimulation. There might be equipment children can bounce on, swing on or spin around on, materials they can squish their hands into, and visually stimulating toys.

Working on anxiety

If you watch when and how much your child is stimming, you might be able to work out whether she’s stimming because she’s anxious. Then you can look at your child’s anxiety and its causes.

For example, is there something new or changed in your child’s environment? Preparing your child for new situations and teaching him new skills to deal with things that make him anxious can reduce stimming.

Encouraging physical activity

Physical activity might reduce stimming by getting your child engaged with others and keeping her occupied. After exercise, children can often focus better on their work. If your child is engaged in her work, there’s less motivation to stim. You could try short sessions of physical activity throughout the day, to break up other activities.

Using behaviour strategies

You could try these behaviour techniques to help your child with stimming:

  • Reward your child if he stops stimming when you ask, and reward him when he’s not stimming. Rewards might include a sticker, or time to play with a favourite toy. The stim itself can be used as a reward for doing something else that’s positive. Stims can be great motivators.

  • Let your child stim after she does something that you’ve asked her to do. If you gradually build in more tasks before allowing your child to stim, stimming will gradually reduce and be replaced with more appropriate behaviour.

  • Teach your child that there’s a time and place for stimming. For example, you might say that after school is the time, and his bedroom is the place.

Where to go for help with stimming

Occupational therapists can help you tackle your child’s stimming and help your child learn play skills. A psychologist, an experienced Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) practitioner, a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst® or another professional who’s skilled in using behaviour interventions might also be able to help.

If your child’s behaviour is causing her harm or hurting other people, speak to your child’s paediatrician.

© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission

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