As a caregiver, educator, or even parent of a child with Autism, you’re most likely accustomed to witnessing some repetitive behaviors on a regular basis that seem odd… and even make you feel a little uncomfortable.
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. In fact, one of my son’s favorite noises can be heard here (speakers DOWN, trust me!) : The neighbors have actually called the police in response to hearing that one on a summer day when his bedroom windows happened to be open. They thought he was in a life-threatening situation!
Yes, some days my son’s stimming can be enough to turn my hair grey. But then I think, if it’s this hard for me to deal with his noises and repetitive behaviors… what is HE going through? How hard is it for HIM to deal with his environment?
Why do they stim?
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…
One of the biggest points I like to make when I train Emergency Responders – who certainly can mistake stimming for drug use, mental illness or non-compliance – is that they should NEVER try to stop someone from stimming unless they are hurting themselves or others.
Imagine telling a blind person not to put their arms out to find their way around a room, just because it looked “weird” or made us uncomfortable. That’s how I view stimming – it’s necessary for my son to function at this time. Now that I’m able to better understand his experience, I’m not nearly as stressed by it – but we DO work on redirection and (sometimes) going to a designated place to stim freely. It helps him identify with his own body’s needs, which ultimately gives him more confidence and self awareness.
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?
Do you struggle with your child or student’s stimming behaviors? Share by commenting below or posting on the SOA Facebook page!