Can you remember a time when you tapped your pencil repetitively because you were nervous about a test or played with your note cards before giving a big speech?
We all do this to some extent.
Often these and other behaviors, like biting your nails or whistling, are involuntary but help us calm down. Some autistic people need this calming effect every day, multiple times. Others simply enjoy the sensory feelings derived from stimming. I’m sure that every one of us can identify “stimming” in a thousand different forms in people we know and in ourselves.
Autistic children and adults do many things that typical children and adults cannot understand, and the one that is often most prominent is self-stimulation.
Called “stimming” in the autism world, self-stimulation is repetitive behavior used solely to engage the senses. Examples include humming, clapping, hand flapping, manipulating objects (such as ripping paper), or running in circles.
While these behaviors may seem inappropriate or unnecessary to others, those who suffer from autism are not simply looking for attention or trying to be disruptive —stimming is a way to reduce the stresses of the world.
Many adults and children with ASD have reported that they stim to help adapt to their environments. Some people report that they stim to counteract an overwhelming sensory input or as a way to reduce internal anxiety
Others may feel the need for more sensory stimulation. For some, stimming may be a way to self-regulate behavior, to “keep it together,” so to speak. Sometimes the stimming behaviors may be calming; other times, they may be a way to maintain focus and attention. Because stimming is repetitive, it can easily become a habit for many individuals with ASD and may simply become pleasurable in and of itself, outside of any self-regulatory benefits. Indeed, self-stimulatory behavior may serve multiple functions across settings.
Autism is a disorder that causes people to react to sensory stimuli in non-typical ways. Stimming is one way of dealing with this bodily malfunction.
For example, rocking is a common form of stimming. Some autistic people have asserted that rocking back a forth a few times helps them refocus when they become overly sensitive to the world around them.
Note : both Jewish and Islamic traditions incorporate rocking back and forth while reading or reciting text.
In the same way that you may enjoy a back massage’s feelings, an autistic individual may enjoy the sensations felt from ripping paper.
Remember, for some people, these stimming behaviors can become obsessions.
Divide stimming into two categories— calming and excitatory.
Calming stimming helps a child refocus, such as we all do when we are nervous, while excitatory stimming directs a child’s attention in a negative way.
Typical children are said to be “wound up” for example, and for an autistic child, being wound up may mean clapping, yelling sounds, or running. This kind of stimming is detrimental, as it interferes with attention and reinforces inappropriate behavior.
A branch of stimming includes an attachment to certain items. Most children have a favorite doll or blanket that goes everywhere, but for an autistic child, this habit is never broken. The item may be something that is textually pleasing or something that the autistic individual likes to smell, hear, or look at.
Along with attachment to a specific item, autistic individuals also may find an attachment to organizing items. For example, he or she may repetitively self-stimulate by lining up items. This too can become an obsession.
Stimming can be a difficult habit to break because it is so pleasant to an autistic individual.
Some stimming is not bad, for the same reasons in which we all self-stimulate when we are nervous. However, if a child’s stimming is interfering with learning, disrupting others, or becoming an obsession or addiction, steps should be taken to reduce this action.
Discourage stimming if it makes sense—every case is different and therefore, no steadfast rules regarding stimming can be set.
Stimming is all about comfort, and your child, autistic or not, should be comfortable as long as his or her activities do not interfere with others or are not self-damaging.
How is self-stimming segregated from “addictions” such as cracking finger joints, chewing gum or whistling incessantly?
If a self-stimulatory behavior prevents an individual from engaging in more meaningful activities or has the potential to cause physical harm, it should be stopped. (The Healthcare and Treatment section of the CAR Autism Roadmap™ explains more about self-injurious behaviors and ways to keep loved ones safe.)
Punishment should not be used to stop self-stimming behavior. More effective strategies involve gradually decreasing the stimming behavior by teaching socially appropriate replacement behavior, using the stimming behavior as a natural motivational reward, and teaching self-management skills.
There may be a time and place for some stims,
however. For example, to the extent that self-stimulatory behaviors indicate anxiety or emotional arousal, they can be used as a signal for caregivers, teachers, and employers that the individual may need a break from the current environment.
Many individuals with ASD can learn to request a break or find another alternative (although in most cases, stimming is preferred to tantrums) when they get the urge to stim. As noted above, not all self-stimulatory behavior needs to be extinguished. Careful examination of the behavior can help to identify times during the day when stimming behavior is permissible and the settings where it is okay, such as in the privacy of the individual’s own bedroom.
Finally, to the extent that stimming behaviors are sensory seeking, providing opportunities to receive sensory input throughout the day (for example, jumping on a trampoline, frequent opportunities to walk or run, or carrying heavy objects) may result in a reduction of self-stimulatory behaviors. Indeed, regular exercise has been shown to reduce self-stimulatory behaviors in some individuals.
In regards to stimming, reduction of these behaviors is ideal, but remember that complete elimination is usually not necessary. Autistic individuals perceive the world in a different way and we must take that into account.
Removing of stopping the stimming entirely can lead to sensory overload.
Stimming is also referred to as an “ism”. It is a self-stimulating behavior that gives comfort and for the autist, it is a coping mechanism.
So-called ‘normal’ people also have them. Just think how many people you know who suck their thumb, twiddle their hair, rock in a chair, drum their fingers, do deep breathing exercises or even smoke when they are anxious?
You wouldn’t presume to stop them so why should it be different for the autistic individual?
Note: We are not medical professionals, we do not claim to know everything about it. Please feel free to research deeper and clarify for yourself where we have gone wrong.