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.
Why children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder stim
Stimming might happen because children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (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.
How stimming affects children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder
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 your child’s ability to learn and communicate with others.
For example, if a child flicks their fingers near their eyes, they might not be playing with toys so much and not developing play skills. When the child is older, if they’re absorbed in watching their hands in front of their eyes in the classroom, they’re not engaged with schoolwork. Or if the child is pacing around the fence in the playground, they’re missing valuable social opportunities.
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, your child 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, your child 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 autism spectrum disorder (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 the stimming is happening because your child is 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 your child new skills to deal with things that cause the anxiety can reduce stimming.
Encouraging physical activity
Physical activity might reduce stimming by getting your child engaged with others and keeping your child occupied. After exercise, children can often focus better on their work. If your child is engaged in 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 they stop stimming when you ask, and reward your child when they’re 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 they do something that you’ve asked them 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 the 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 your child harm or hurting other people, speak to your child’s paediatrician.