Stimming refers to self-soothing or self-stimulatory behaviors like sounds or repetitive movements. It is very common among neurotypicals; However, for people with autism, it’s one of the diagnostic criteria for their condition. It’s because stimming in neurodiverse individuals can take an extreme form, leading to self-harming incidents.
Stimming behaviors are not inherently dangerous, but some behaviors can be so intense that they could lead to physical injury. These sensory-seeking stimming behaviors could need medical assistance, such as chewing and ingesting non-food items like dirt, hair, and rubber.
Some autistic stimming behaviors involve self-harming, like pulling hair, nail or finger biting, or hitting their head on hard surfaces. Unfortunately, these stimming episodes can be so intense that the child keeps indulging himself in these self-harming actions regardless of the pain.
Let’s take a look at the reason behind stimming behaviors among autistic individuals and explore strategies for managing these behaviors.
Common symptoms of stimming
Stimming behaviors in autism are extreme self-soothing behaviors that are obnoxious and mostly involve self-harming. Unlike neurotypicals, people with autism are unable to pick on social cues and are less able to comprehend their offensive behavior in a social setting.
Some common stimming autistic behaviors that are obtrusive include:
- Rocking back and forth
- Repetitive jumping
- Constant spinning or twirling
- Loud humming or grunting
- Repetitive blinking
- Opening and closing the door
- Switch flicking
- Hand flapping
- Finger flicking or snapping
- Repetitive object tapping
- Recurring ear covering
- Repetitive sounds, phrases, or words
- Constant staring at the ceiling or rotating objects
- Sniffing at people or objects
- Licking objects
- Rearranging objects for hours
Stimming can be why an autistic child keeps rearranging his toys or stuff around the room for hours instead of playing with them. They might also seem unhealthily obsessed with certain toys or objects.
Stimming can also take the form of self-harming for autistic individuals and instigate panic and stress in people around them.
Self-harming behaviors in children with autism can look like this:
- Extreme scratching or rubbing
- Excessive nail-biting
- Head banging
- Hand and arm biting
- Ear clapping
- Smacking or hitting oneself
- Picking on scabs
- Swallowing hazardous items
Most people with autism face social stigmatization, and these extreme stimming behaviors reinforce them. Hence, autistic people face more social abandonment and isolation, making these extreme behaviors go unchecked.
Why is stimming common among autistics?
Stimming is one of the most visible criteria of diagnosis for autism. What triggers stimming behavior is still unknown; however, experts believe it’s a gesture of emotional self-regulation among autistic individuals.
Individuals on the spectrum suffer from sensory processing dysfunction. This dysfunction can be of two types.
Hypersensitive: A child with autism is hypersensitive when he gets agitated by loud noise, strong odors, or bright lights due to sensory overload.
Hyposensitive: When a loud noise or odor triggers no or less response, then it is known as hyposensitive.
What causes stimming?
Stimming is a coping mechanism for various triggers like:
For hypersensitive autistic individuals, stimming helps block out sensory overload and overstimulation while assisting them in regulating their emotions.
For hyposensitive individuals, it helps calm their nerves and senses and helps them get the necessary stimulation.
Children with autism struggle to regulate their emotions through crying; this is where stimming comes in. It helps them regulate their negative and positive feelings, which otherwise would be too big for them to process.
Stimming also helps in soothing physical pain like an ear infection, fever, or sore throat.
Adapting to a new environment
Children with autism hate new environments and feel nervous and stressed around new people. Hence, stimming could help them relieve the stress of a new place or people.
Autistic individuals have a hard time expressing their emotions and needs and often get anxious when no one recognizes their feelings or needs. Stimming is an outlet for them to express their frustration that they cannot hold within.
Stimming can also be the result of feeling pressured. When autistic children are told to do something that they avoid or is challenging for them to do, for instance, dressing up for school, etc., they might start to stim unexpectedly.
By consulting a therapist, you can better understand your child’s triggers for stimming behavior and learn to deal with them.
Ways to manage stimming effectively
Stimming can also be an effective way of keeping your child grounded and avoiding any unpredicted triggers. However, if your child is causing disruption through obnoxious repetitive behaviors in a social setting or is prone to self-harm, then it is a condition that must be treated.
Punishing a child or ignoring their stimming behaviors will only make things worse in the long run. If you truly wish to manage your child’s stimming behavior, remember that it’s an unintentional self-soothing mechanism that they need your help to deal with.
Here are some ways to manage your child’s stimming behavior:
Talk to your physician
A look-alike stimming reaction could be a reason for some other medical condition. For instance, some parents may confuse seizures with stimming behavior.
Before speculating your child’s habitual behavior as a sign of autism, consider setting an appointment with your trusted physician and explain your reservations. Your physician will ask you to explain their disruptive behaviors and do some tests to rule out other underlying conditions.
Look out for sensory overloads
By knowing the cause of stimming, you can intervene with a solution and avoid it from recurring in the future. Stimming is mostly triggered by:
- Loud sounds
- Strong scents and odors
- Bright lights
- Change in routine
- Strong emotions of excitement, fear, sadness, or happiness
As soon as you see a stimming behavior from your child, ask what is bothering them. Your child might respond immediately or struggle to tell you due to a lack of advanced verbal skills. Look out for bright colors, light or loud sounds in your child`s surroundings, and get rid of them.
Avoid punishing your child for his unintentional stimming behaviors; instead, encourage them to stop stimming by offering them a reward.
Try applied behavior therapy
Applied behavior therapy helps children with autism adapt to social settings they haven’t encountered before. It encourages positive behaviors through the reward system and helps children with autism strengthen their positive manners while reducing negative ones.
Go for speech therapy
Experts believe stimming is a form of communication, and speech therapists can help teach your autistic child to use words without stims.
For instance, your speech therapist can teach your child words like “too noisy” to replace their triggers like rocking back and forth or screaming. This reduces stimming behaviors and helps parents understand what makes their child anxious.
The word “sensory diet” refers to a form of occupational therapy that helps reduce stimming by incorporating activities into the child’s routine to meet their personal sensory needs.
Change of environment
Limiting environmental and social stresses can greatly reduce the risk of sensory overload for your hypersensitive child. You could help settle your child in soundproof rooms or remove textures or lights that tend to upset them and trigger stimming.
Help them exercise
Physical activities help your child stay engaged and not focus on the surrounding sounds. Exercise also helps them build a strong sense of focus.
Take out a little bit of time throughout the day to exercise, especially if your child tends to engage in physical stimming like jumping. This will help him release any built-up emotions and stress that could lead to stimming.
Stress management tools
Teach your child to use a stress management tool like a fidget or stress ball to help him stim the healthy way. Sound-blocking headphones can also be of great help in preventing stimming.
Look for ways to help your child fulfill their stimming through engaging in productive activities and help save others the stress.
Encourage safe stimming
For some autistic children, stimming could be a great source of comfort and remarkably soothing. If your child feels the same, then start looking for ways to allow stimming in a more healthy way, like:
Allow your child to take stimming breaks throughout the day and think of them as self-care time for themselves.
Make it a private activity
Teach your child how stimming is a private activity and should be done alone in their room. This will teach them to stay disciplined in social settings and avoid hurting or acting out in front of random people.
Certain medications like Risperdal and Abilify can help reduce irritation and aggressive symptoms to control extreme self-harming stimming behaviors.
Stimming can be problematic if it’s consistent and leads to self-harming events. Minimizing environmental changes and offering stress management tools and medications are the best ways to mitigate self-harming behaviors and teach your child healthy ways to cope with stimming.
Disruptive stimming behaviors can be embarrassing for family and friends, but they rarely lead to harmful situations. With applied behavior and occupational therapies, stimming can be alleviated but not eliminated.