Whether or not you are familiar with the term “stimming” (short for “self-stimulation”), you’ve probably seen it in the form of hand or arm flapping, spinning, rocking back and forth, or self-injurious versions like hitting or biting oneself.
Stimming can also be verbal. It’s not uncommon to hear repetitive squealing, screaming, or sound effects coming from a child with Autism. I had more than my share of it of it this weekend, that it had me to the point of tears. To make it even better, my 2-year-old daughter thought it would be fun to copy her bothers behaviour and do it as well.
One of the biggest reasons is to counteract an overwhelming sensory environment. We don’t just have five senses, like we were taught in school. We actually receive sensory input through sights, sounds, touch, tastes, smells, movement and balance, body position and muscle control.
Difficulty interpreting the input leads to devastating consequences with:
- Interactions with others
- Daily functioning
- Regulating emotions
- Social relationships
Stimming is a way to retreat and relieve the pain and overwhelm of your surroundings.
It also alleviates high levels of anxiety felt daily. If you had to spend most of your energy trying to process and block out painful noises, lights, smells, and textures how much focus would you have left for daily tasks, learning and growth?
Stimming helps to refocus and realign. The ability to create order and routine from the chaos of your surroundings is sometimes as easy as spinning in an office chair or rocking back and forth.
It’s soothing. I always found it strange that my son hears things ten times louder than I do and noises like the school bell are painful, yet when he screams or squeals it somehow calms him. But it’s true. Many adults with Autism have told me the same – it feels good.
It’s like a steam pressure valve. What happens when a valve stays closed and the pressure builds up with no release? Yup! Nuclear meltdown…
Here are some ways to handle the stimming of your autistic child.
Recognize that everyone stims here and there. Whenever you pace, fiddle with your hair, bite your pencil, or squeeze your hands, you’re stimming. Stimming is both more necessary and more noticeable in autistic children, due to sensory issues.
Protect the child from negativity. Some people can be judgmental or cruel to people who are different, and may mock or punish a child who appears visibly disabled. This is harmful to the child’s well-being.
- Recognize that anyone can be unkind. Classmates, parents, teachers, and even therapists can say and do terrible things to autistic children.
- Teach your child that it is wrong for people to treat them this way. Assure them that they are allowed to be different, and that it’s not their fault if someone else treats them badly. Bullying is caused by people choosing to be bullies, not by the victim being themselves.
- Teach your child that they can do whatever they want, as long as they are being safe and respectful of other people’s feelings. (Hitting is not okay. Rocking back and forth is.)
Address the child’s emotions. If your child is stimming because of their feelings, then try to identify that feeling and respond to it appropriately. Think of emotional stimming like a facial expression—it’s a way for them to express something. Here are some examples of how to respond:
- “Well, you look excited today! Are you flapping because you’re excited to see Grandma?”
- “Is everything okay? You look unhappy.”
- “Tommy, Lulu’s making that sound because she’s upset. Please stop getting in her personal space.”
Learn the child’s own unique stimming patterns. Unlike facial expressions, stims are not universal and can mean different things for different people. Notice the child’s individual stims. They can give you clues to how they’re doing and can even show signs of oncoming meltdowns before they begin. Here are some example individual stims:
- Noah flaps his arms when he feels overwhelmed.
- Rachel paces whenever she falls into deep thought. Her parents know that usually an impromptu science project follows this and are looking into science programs at her school.
- Jamal used to bite his fingers when he was worried, until his dads helped him redirect to biting chewy jewelry.
Find stim toys to enhance concentration and self-calming. You can purchase them online, make them yourself, or repurpose common objects such as flashlights and string. Keep a box of stim toys in an accessible place where your child can easily get whatever they need.
- For calmer trips out and about, ask a child to pick a stim toy from the box to take along.
- Write down where you found each stim toy, in case they break or become misplaced.
Moderate hyperactivity with exercise. If a child is stimming so much that they can’t focus, then they need more exercise. Go to playgrounds, set up a basketball in the driveway, go to pools, take family walks, and have plenty of sports equipment available for backyard sports. It may be worth purchasing a swing or playground set for your yard if possible.
Find out how to redirect stims that cause harm. Stims such as biting, head-banging, and staring at the sun are detrimental to your child’s health. You can talk with your child and their therapist about how to fulfill their needs in a less harmful manner.
Accept socially unusual stims as part of your child’s style. Your child may look strange, and they will appear disabled in public. This does not mean that you are a bad parent, it means that you have a disabled child. Learn to relax and stop worrying about whether others are judging you or the child. Your child will still be able to have a successful and happy life.
- Inform your child that their behavior looks odd, using a neutral tone of voice to make it clear that you aren’t ashamed. “Most thirteen-year-olds don’t carry stuffed animals to grocery stores. If that bothers you, you could go get a different stim toy from your box. But it’s okay to be different, and I’m fine with either way you choose.”
- Never try to change a behavior only because you find it embarrassing. If this is the case, it may be yourself who needs to change to accept others.
Encourage stimming before leaving the house. If you know an event is going to be difficult, try giving the child some deep pressure (tight hugs, weighted blankets, massage, stacking things on them, etc.). Activity can help with releasing excess energy beforehand if this is often a problem for your child. Swinging and rocking may also help. Figure out which sensory activities can calm them or burn energy, depending on their individual needs and preferences.
Find the beauty in stimming. Stimming is one of the things that makes your child unique. It helps them connect to the world and makes them special. Love the stims and love the child.
When you think about it – how many of you bite your nails, tap your foot, drum with a pen, scratch or even pick at things when you’re stressed? I know I do some of those! Isn’t that a form of stimming? Yeah, we all kinda stim in our own way, don’t we?
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