Self-stimulatory behavior, or stimming, is a common occurrence in children with autism. Many people don’t understand what it is or why it happens, so we’re going to take a closer look at self-stimulatory behavior in children with autism. We’ll discuss the causes and effects of stimming, as well as some strategies for managing it.

Examples of Stimming

Self stimulatory behavior is characterized by repetitive and often rhythmic movement or vocalization. Children with autism often use it as a way to self-regulate their sensory input and output. Stimming can be very calming for children with autism, and it can also help them focus on a task.

Examples of self-stimulatory behavior often include one of or a combination of the following:

  • Rocking back and forth
  • Flapping the hands
  • Spinning
  • Repetitive behavior or speech

These types of behaviors are for the most part harmless and should not be discouraged. However, sometimes stimming can also be disruptive to the child’s environment and to the people around them. Less common stimming behaviors include self-injurious behavior such as head-banging or biting oneself.

It’s important to understand the various aspects self-stimulatory behavior so that you can effectively manage it and make sure that your child is safe even when they may be in a heightened state trying to regulate emotions.

What Causes Stimming?

There are many different causes of self-stimulatory behavior. It may be a way for children with autism to deal with anxiety, boredom, or stress. It can also be a way for them to self-soothe or self-regulate their sensory input. Sensory processing can be especially difficult for our little friends on the spectrum and many times they are looking for an outlet to reduce their anxieties from their environment.

Can we “fix” Stimming?

Now that we have a basic understanding of what stimming is you may be asking yourself if you should worry about your child’s self-stimulating behavior. For the most part many of these behaviors such as hand flapping are harmless and we should not be trying to “fix” this behavior through therapy or any other type of means.

We need to accept that the child may engage in certain types of behaviors as a way of coping with their environment and for emotional regulation. These behaviors need to be accepted and the more people understand them the more they will be accepted by society at large and our friends on the spectrum can be allowed to be themselves.

When most of us are experiencing nerves or anxiety of some kind we engage in forms of self-stimulatory behavior ourselves and we may not even realize it! Things like tapping our feet or twirling our hair can all be considered forms of stimming because we are doing them to help soothe ourselves.

However, when it comes to the more dangerous self-stimulatory behaviors such as engaging in self harm these do need to be addressed.

Who can help address potentially dangerous forms of stimming?

ABA Therapy and the strategies used by BCBAs can be a great way to help decrease some of the more dangerous behaviors that our kiddos may be engaging in.

This does not mean that we need to punish the child in any way. Instead, the best strategy involves replacing the potentially dangerous behavior with another behavior that can provide the same type of comfort but in a safer way. Using strategies that involve reinforcing the safer alternative behavior can be a great way to help get your child motivated to try a different way to help with their emotional regulation.

Occupational therapists can also play a crucial role in helping children with ASD reduce their anxieties through sensory integration strategies as well. These strategies will help your child feel more at ease in what can be a busy or challenging environment.

Counseling and talk therapy can also have a major impact on helping children with ASD understand the intense emotions they may experience. Counselors can teach important emotional regulation skills to help process thoughts and emotions more clearly.

Ethical Questions about Stimming

In the past it was common practice in fields such as ABA Therapy to try to get children with autism to stop stimming. However, over time people in the neurodivergent community have talked about how they felt that the stigmas associated with stimming and trying to get them to stop have led to trauma. Much of the controversy around the history ABA Therapy has led to a reckoning and thankfully the field has changed.

If you have decided to enroll your child at a center that provides ABA Therapy or any type of therapy it will be important for you to make sure that the therapists there are adhering to these new standards in their fields. As we have discussed in this post most forms of stimming are relatively harmless. In fact, if you focus on trying to decrease these behaviors you may even be encouraging your child to replace that harmless behavior with a more dangerous one.

It is important to listen to the adults who have lived through and experienced various forms of trauma so that we as educators and parents can do better for our children. To learn more about the views about stimming from autistic adults we suggest you check out the following links:

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