What is Stimming and Why Does my Child with Autism Stim?

What is stimming?

Stimming or self-stimulating behavior includes the repetitive actions of twirling or spinning, hand-flapping, head-banging and many other complex body movements. It also includes the repetitive use of an object, such as flicking a rubber band, twirling a piece of string, or repetitive activities involving the senses (such as repeatedly feeling a particular texture). Stimming is often one of the most outwardly signs in Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Some of the classic forms of stimming by a child with autism include:

  • Staring at objects — especially anything with lights or movement
  • Gazing off into space
  • Blinking repeatedly
  • Looking out of the corner of their eyes
  • Flipping lights on and off repeatedly
  • Random humming, shrieking, or making other vocal noises
  • Finger snapping, tapping or putting hands over their ears.
  • Tapping on ears or objects
  • Covering and uncovering ears
  • Tasting or licking — including thumb sucking, finger sucking, or tasting something one wouldn’t normally taste
  • Unusual or inappropriate smelling or sniffing

What are Repetitive Behaviors?

Scientists categorize repetitive behaviors into two groups. So-called ‘lower-order’ repetitive behaviors are movements such as hand-flapping, fidgeting with objects or body rocking, and vocalizations such as grunting or repeating certain phrases. ‘Higher-order’ repetitive behaviors include autism traits such as routines and rituals, insistence on sameness and intense interests. Repetitive behaviors are among the first signs of autism to emerge in toddlerhood. They are seen in people across the autism spectrum. They tend to be more pronounced in those with lower cognitive ability, however, repetitive behaviors have been recognized as part of autism since the condition was first described.

Why do children with autism resort to stimming?

Although the activities used for stimming varies from child to child, the reasons behind it may be the same:

  • For enjoyment
  • To mask the unoccupied mind and fill the void when bored
  • An attempt to gain sensory input, such as rocking may be a way to stimulate the balance (vestibular) system; hand-flapping may provide visual stimulation
  • An attempt to reduce sensory input, such as focusing on one sound may reduce the impact of a loud, distressing environment; this may particularly be seen in social situations
  • Repetitive motions can allow children with autism to keep focused, and clear their head of distractions
  • To deal with stress and anxiety when feeling anxious, overwhelmed, or uncomfortable
  • Self-regulation and a way to express needs and feelings

Should you be concerned or prevent your child from stimming?

Although stimming can be viewed as disruptive and socially unacceptable, stimming is often very enjoyable and is a way to reduce stress. If the actions of stimming are deemed safe, it should not be stopped or reduced. There may be times that your child will function better if they are allowed to stim. However, in some instances stimming can sometimes be deemed as unsafe.

Sometimes, intense or constant repetitive behaviors prevent children with autism from engaging in important activities, such as learning in school. Occasionally, they can result in harm to others or self-harm, such as when a person repeatedly bangs his head against a wall.

If the behavior restricts the child’s opportunities, causes distress or discomfort, impacts on learning, causes difficulties, or is in some way unsafe, they may need support to stop or modify the behavior, or reduce their reliance on it.

 

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