Stimming, Hand flapping and other self stimulatory behaviors in autism
What is the definition of stimming?
Autism Stimming or stim is a kind of self stimulation and is one of the many indicators of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A person who stims shows repetitive body movements that can involve all five senses or moving objects in a repetitive motion. It is also called “stereotypy.”
What causes stimming in autistic children?
There are several reasons stimming can occur
Overstimulation: When there are too many sensory inputs, focusing attention away from overwhelming feelings
Understimulation: When there is not enough sensory input or feeling, stimming can allow stimulation of the senses and creating pleasure
Reduction of pain: Engaging in a different activity causes the body to relax.
Self regulation: Overcome anxiety, express distress etc
Hand flapping and autism
Of all the stimming behaviors, hand-flapping is one that’s quite noticeable in kids with ASD. It is a type of repetitive behavior that can occur for short or long durations
There are various ways that this self-stimulatory behavior exhibit itself:
- Moving fingers vigorously
- Clicking fingers
- Moving arms
What does hand flapping look like?
The video below shows a child hand flapping while excited although the same kind of movements can also illustrate distress.
When to worry about hand flapping
Most of the time, it is nothing to worry about and can be triggered by any of the following:
- Decreased body movements
This would only be a problem if it results in self harm or gets in the way of their daily living ability or ability to function in the world.
Types of stimming
Stimming can appear in several different forms. Here are some common examples:
Verbal and auditory stimming
Auditory stimming is anything that affects a person’s sense of hearing. It may include:
- Repetitive speech (learned words like song lyrics, movie lines, book passages)
- Covering or tapping of ears, snapping fingers, or tapping on objects repeatedly
- Humming, grunting, or high-pitched noises
Visual stimming is anything that uses a person’s sense of sight. It may include:
- Staring blankly at objects
- Lining up objects such as toys
- Blinking repeatedly
- Turning lights on and off
Tactile stims refer to a person’s sense of touch. It may include:
- Rubbing or scratching of hands or objects
- Repetitive hand motions such as opening and closing fists
- Tapping fingers repeatedly
- Tactile defensiveness
A Vestibular stim refers to a person’s sense of balance and movement. It may include:
- Rocking back and forth or side to side
- Twirling or spinning
- Jumping repeatedly
- Hanging upside down
Olfactory or taste stimming
Olfactory stimming affects a person’s sense of taste and smell. It includes repetitive motions like the following:
- Smelling objects
- Tasting unusual objects
- Licking hand or objects
In most cases, stimming is not harmful and does not need to be stopped nor suppressed. Karen Wang, author of the book My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities believes if a stim is successfully eliminated, then it is likely that it will be replaced with a new one.
Despite this, parents and caregivers of autistic kids may want to lessen the behavior to avoid self injurious behaviors or maintain a level of social acceptability. An autism helmet can prevent children from injuring themselves in the event that they do engage in head banging.
In the next section we discuss how you can reduce stimming.
How to reduce stimming?
There are several ways to reduce stimming without stopping it altogether. But first we need to consider the reasons of the stimming behavior.
Rule out medical conditions
Some medical conditions like ear infections, migraines, and physical pain can worsen stimming behaviors, so it’s important to have this checked and addressed as soon as possible particularly if the autistic child is non verbal.
Studies have shown that exercise and other physical activities can release tension and lessen stimming in people with autism. Engaging autistic people in exercise a few minutes every day might help greatly reduce stimming.
Create a calm, safe environment
To prevent stress and anxiety that can often cause stimming, make it a practice to have a quiet space at home. This ensures that most outside factors that trigger stimming are avoided, giving the best possible environment for the child.
Use stims as a reward
Stims can be offered as a reward after a challenging activity. With this strategy, the child has the freedom to be himself/herself and will possibly stim less throughout the rest of the day (Moore, 2008).
Teaching Kids About Managing Emotions and Autism Self-Regulation
While there are many ways parents and caregivers can help manage a child’s stims, it might be more effective to instill self-regulation. When a child learns to manage emotions, then stimming can be lessened as a result.
Management of autism emotion
children with autism not only have difficulty recognizing the emotions of others, but also their own. While it can be challenging to have an autistic child describe what he/she is feeling, it is possible.
Here are some ways to teach children with autism how to recognize and regulate emotions (Naseef, Ariel, 2006):
- Explain why the child is behaving a certain way. This is the first step towards helping him/her understand emotions. Let the child know that everyone goes through it, but there are ways to overcome it.
- Understand the child’s sensitivities and unique reactions to situations and create an action plan. If the child gets anxious in a noisy room, teach him/her to find a quiet place to calm down.
- When there is something that will cause the child stress, inform him/her beforehand and challenge the child to go through it with the promise of a reward when he/she succeeds.
Self-regulation and autism
Self-regulation is the ability to control an urge to do something and, on the other hand, do something even when one does not want to. Both of these can be challenging for a person with autism.
People with autism have not only difficulty understanding other people’s emotions at times but also their own (Bachevalier, Loveland, 2006). There are many ways to help a child with autism self-regulate, but it is a process and will take some time before it becomes second nature.
The ultimate goal in achieving self-regulation is to be aware of emotions and act before it manifests itself into stress-induced behaviors like stimming, tantrums, or meltdowns.
Scott Bezsylko, school director of Winston Preparatory School, a day program for young people with learning differences in the United States, says that children will learn to self-regulate when they are forced to deal with situations that are stressful for them rather than avoid them. He then suggests to coach the child while in the undesirable state to help him/her get through it. Over time, the child should be able to overcome the negative experience in his/her own.
Being mindful or self-aware can also be the key for children with autism to self-regulate. Meditation activities like yoga can help a child become self-reflective and, eventually, self-regulative. As a result, a child with autism can better handle difficult situations, manage emotions, and avoid resorting to repetitive behaviors such as stimming.
Self-Stimulatory Behavior. Retrieved from https://www.autism.com/symptoms_self-stim
Motor stereotypies in children with autism and other developmental disorders. (15 December 2008). Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1469-8749.2008.03178.x
Observational Characterization of Sensory Interests, Repetitions, and Seeking Behaviors. (April 2015). Retrieved from https://ajot.aota.org/article.aspx?articleid=2247268&resultClick=3
The orbitofrontal–amygdala circuit and self-regulation of social-emotional behavior in autism” Bachevalier Loveland (2006). Retrieved from https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/The-orbitofrontal%E2%80%93amygdala-circuit-and-of-behavior-Bachevalier-Loveland/ecbdac90dbc4df8f6986079887983e4f5f7aa19d