Stimming, Hand Flapping and Other Self Stimulatory Behaviors in Autism
If you’re an autism parent, it is likely you’ve seen your child present repetitive self stimulatory behaviours such as hand flapping, spinning, and shaking. These behaviors can be worrying if they’re not fully understood and questions running through your mind might be: why does stimming happen and how can it be managed?
In this guide we discuss everything you need to know about stimming in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and how to manage stimming behaviors.
What is stimming in autism?
Stimming is a kind of self stimulation and is one of many possible 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. Stimming is also known as “stereotypy.”
What causes stimming in autistic children?
There are several reasons stimming can occur in autistic people.
A child might stim when there are too many sensory inputs. He/she might use stimming to focus his/her attention away from overwhelming feelings.
Stimming might also occur for the opposite reason – when there is not enough sensory input or feeling, it can stimulate the senses and create some form of pleasure.
Reduction of pain
Engaging in a different activity causes the body to relax. A child might therefore choose to stim as a coping mechanism or a distraction from pain or discomfort.
Stimming might be used as a form of overcoming anxiety, expressing distress or a distraction from a situation in which a child feels uncomfortable.
Forms of stimming in children with autism
Of all the stimming behaviors, hand flapping is perhaps one this is most noticeable in children with ASD. It is a type of repetitive behavior that can occur for short or long durations.
There are various forms in which hand-flapping can present itself as a self-stimulatory behavior, including:
- Moving fingers vigorously
- Clicking fingers
- Moving arms
- The video below shows a child hand flapping while excited although the same kind of movements of the hands can also illustrate distress.
Most of the time, hand flapping is nothing to worry about. The behavior 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 the child’s daily living, through limiting the use of his/her hands, or his/her ability to function in the world.
Verbal and auditory stimming
Auditory stimming is anything that affects a person’s sense of hearing. It may include:
- Repetitive speech (learned words such as 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 a behavior 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 stimming refers to a person’s sense of touch. Examples 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 is a behavior linked 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 centers around a person’s sense of taste and smell. It includes repetitive behaviors like the following:
- Smelling objects
- Tasting unusual objects
- Licking hand or objects
Can I stop my child from stimming?
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 children with autism may want to lessen stimming behaviors in order to avoid self-injury or help maintain a level of social acceptability for their child. An autism helmet is a useful tool to help prevent children from injuring themselves in the event they do engage in headbanging.
In the next section, we discuss how you can attempt to manage stimming in a person with autism if it is becoming a worrying issue in your home.
How to reduce stimming behavior
There are several ways to control stimming although it is difficult to stop people with autism from stimming altogether. But first, we need to consider the reasons behind the stimming behavior.
Rule out medical conditions
Some medical conditions like ear infections, migraines, and physical pain can worsen stimming behaviors in autistic people, so it’s important to have this checked and addressed as soon as possible, particularly if your child with autism is non verbal.
Studies have shown that exercise and other physical activities can release tension and reduce stimming in people with autism. Engaging autistic people in exercise for a few minutes every day might help stop stimming to some extent.
Create a calm, safe environment
Ensure your home is a safe, quiet space in order to prevent stress and anxiety (which can often cause stimming). Your child’s home should be a place where most outside factors that trigger stimming are avoided, creating the best possible environment for the child.
Use stims as a reward
The use of a stimming behavior can be offered as a reward after a challenging activity. This might sound strange, but adopting this strategy means the child with autism has the freedom to express himself/herself in a way that he/she chooses (and he/she will possibly stim less throughout the rest of the day) (Moore, 2008).
Managing Emotions and Self-Regulation
While there are many approaches parents and caregivers can take to help manage a child’s stims, the most effective might be to work towards instilling self-regulation. It is widely believed that stimming may be lessened when a child learns to manage his/her emotions.
Management of emotion for ASD children
Children with autism have difficulty recognizing their own emotions as well as the feelings of other people. Encouraging an autistic child to describe what he/she is feeling can therefore be challenging – but it is possible.
Here are some tips to help autistic children learn how to recognize and regulate emotions (Naseef, Ariel, 2006):
- Explain to the child why he/she might be behaving a certain way: This is the first step towards helping him/her understand forms of emotion. Let the child know that others also experience these feelings, but there are ways to overcome them.
- Understand the child’s sensitivities and unique reactions to situations and create an action plan: For example, if the child gets anxious in a noisy room, teach him/her to find a quiet place to calm down.
- Prepare and inform: When a situation, perhaps a social event, is likely to occur which 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 defined as the ability to control an urge to do something, as well as the ability to do something even when one does not want to. Both of these can be challenging for autistic people – and particularly children with autism.
As previously mentioned, people with autism not only have 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 will take some time before it becomes second nature.
The ultimate goal in achieving self-regulation is to be aware of your child’s feelings and act before they manifest as 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 suggests coaching 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.
Helping autistic children to be mindful or self-aware can also help them self-regulate. Meditation activities such as 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 emotion, and avoid resorting to 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