Self-stimulatory behavior is commonly exhibited by children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), however, this population is not the only time that SLP’s and parents may encounter a behavior that a child has developed to stimulate or calm their senses.
Think about it…
- Babies are soothed when rocked.
- Adults fan themselves to cool off.
- People hug to give and receive comfort.
When an individual wants to increase or arouse their senses, they engage in an activity directly involving their senses such as:
- Listening to music.
- Eating food.
- Watching a video or movie.
- Scratching an itch/rubbing a bruise.
Think about it…
- Most of these repetitive behaviors are seen as appropriate if carried out at the proper time and in the proper place.
What makes “stimming” different?
- This phrase is one that portrays a more negative image.
- The term refers to “a repetitive body movement, such as hand flapping, that is hypothesized to stimulate one or more senses”.
- In the world of ASD, this is known as any type of repetitive, stereotypical behavior engaged in to alleviate or increase sensory input.
- Children will engage in this type of behavior to get a response, make someone interested, or achieve a more alert state of being.
- “Stimming” is highlighted by patterns of self-regulatory behavior that are deemed unacceptable.
- Depending what form the behavior takes and how often it occurs it could be seen as normal – a way to help a person function, or abnormal – a pattern of obsession.
- Every child and adult, regardless diagnosis, will attempt to modulate his/ her sensory experience as they interact with their world.
- In fact, only 10% of children with ASD actually engage in exaggerated self-stimulation, such as hand flapping, spinning, toe-walking, licking objects, tracking hand movements or sniffing foods, items, or people.
So you notice these behaviors, now what?
- There’s a fine line between behavior management (as a teacher, SLP, and even parent), and seeking professional help for a child’s sensory needs.
- A qualified occupational therapist (OT) can create a customized sensory diet for every child, which can help reduce “stimming” behaviors.
Some other tips in assessing and managing these behaviors are as follows:
Conduct a Detailed Review: It is important to begin with a thorough assessment of the behaviors. Do the behaviors interfere with daily living, such as the ability to pay attention? Are there any behaviors that negatively impact socialization? Are any of the behaviors obsessive? Do they have a negative impact on the child?
Seek to Understand: What is the function of these behaviors? Most “stimming” behaviors occur involuntarily to some degree, especially in the beginning. However, once a child realizes the relief it brings to their sensory system it then becomes more intentional, and easily gets reinforced into a habit. If it is deemed appropriate it can become a functional way to self-regulate one’s sensory experience, but if it is seen as dysfunctional it can easily get out of control.
Gather Information: If the child is verbal it may prove beneficial to engage in conversation about the behaviors.
For example: If a child stares excessively at an object, consider asking them, “Are you trying to do something with your eyes? Tell me what you see.” If the child is able to verbalize an answer, you may gather extremely useful information to address the behavior with.
Make lists: Most “stimming” behaviors are functional; they serve a purpose for meeting a sensory need, but they may not necessarily be appropriate. Adults may make a list categorizing the behavior(s) as functional and appropriate vs. functional and inappropriate. This will help to determine which behaviors need to be addressed and in what order.
Regulate vs. Eradicate: Once a list is established, it is important to consider the impact that trying to ban the behavior will have on the person. Eradicating the behavior may not be realistic and may make things worse in the short term. Sometimes regulating the behavior may be all we can do in some cases.
Be Positive: It is important to positively reinforce appropriate behaviors.
For example: “I like the way your hands are being quiet. It makes it easier for you to pay attention to what is going on around you.”
Keep Calm: Children often engage in these behaviors when they are stressed or as a means to manage emotions such as fear, anger and anxiety; therefore, maintaining an atmosphere that is as tranquil, predictable, and appeasing to the senses as possible will prevent many of these behaviors from surfacing.
Ashley DiGregorio M.A., CF-SLP, TSSLD