Repetitive behaviors such as spinning objects, opening and closing things repeatedly, rocking, arm-flapping, squealing, making loud noises or even hitting are common in those on the autism spectrum. Often ritualistic, they are known as perseveration or self-stimulatory behavior (stimming). While they may seem pointless and “weird” to us, they fulfill a very important function for the person carrying them out, such as relieving anxiety, counteracting and overwhelming sensory environment, regulating the nervous system or simply letting off steam. The frequency and severity of the behaviors varies from person to person.
When Stimming Becomes Dangerous
When responding to a call involving an autistic individual, you may encounter someone stimming in response to the stress of the emergency situation you’ve been called to. I always advocate letting the behavior continue, as it typically helps the person self-calm. The only exception is when they are hurting themselves or others. Self-calming may quickly escalate into self-injurious behavior such as hitting themselves, head banging, chewing their hands or biting themselves.
Redirection by definition means to direct again; to change the direction or focus; to channel into a new direction. It is a tool that can help interrupt the behavior. If the scene is safe you may be able to use this technique to modify harmful behaviors and help direct the person to an alternative, safer one. It may take a few attempts, but can successfully take the focus off negative coping behaviors and de-escalate the situation.
To redirect you need to quickly interrupt the negative behavior, with as minimal attention as possible. Of course, done at home in a calm environment a caregiver has an opportunity to teach, practice and continue positive reinforcement until the person can successfully recognize and modify the behavior. In the field, you may have to use a more dramatic interrupting method. Remember that you are not punishing the person for inappropriate behavior – a behavior that is serving a purpose for them – you are more or less “shocking” their system to allow for a new focus. This may look like using a different tone of voice, issuing a job or task, or even doing something outlandish, like breaking out into song. Yes, I have done this before with successful results!
I recently saw this on Facebook… definitely a true story for me.
Initially you want to start with a high-probability request: one the person is LIKELY to comply with on the first request, without further prompting (“point to your nose”, “stand up”, etc.). Follow that with a series of two or three more high-P requests together and one low-P request (one the person is UNLIKELY to comply with). Keep it simple and offer praise after each successful high-P compliance. Extend and magnify praise when they comply with the low-P request.
When you are redirecting behavior, remember the whole point is to emphasize the replacement behavior that you want. If there is no replacement option, it will be impossible to redirect.