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Austistic Children and Stimming

written by: Debbie Roome • edited by: Linda Richter • updated: 7/24/2011

Stimming refers to the action of self stimulation. In autistic children, this is displayed as repetitive behaviors that children engage in to help them cope with daily life.

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    What is Stimming--and Does it Need to be Stopped?

    Getting a child to stop stimming is not always easy, and there are many factors to consider when starting the process. The first is to look at how the child stims. Here are some of the more common forms of stimming:

    • Staring intently at objects or lights. This may involve rolling eyeballs and blinking.
    • Rocking is common and the child sways from side to side or forward and backward while appearing to be caught in a world of their own. Others spin around on the spot.
    • Hand flapping, snapping or rolling fingers and repetitively rubbing body parts is a type of stimming.
    • Some children stim by smelling objects or people.

    Stimming is expressed in different ways and may be disruptive and obvious to those around the child. It often sets the child apart as being different and draws attention to the family when they are out with the child. Many parents try to stop the stimming to protect their child from the stares from strangers. It is important to consider what the consequences will be for the child if parents try to stop them from stimming.

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    What Triggers Stimming in Children

    Many autistic children have difficulties with sensory overload and stim as a way of coping. Understanding what sets them off is part of the process of stopping the stimming or helping the child to modify it into a more acceptable set of actions. The best way to identify what causes a child to stim is to take note of where he is and what the situation is when he starts the repetitive actions. Here are some of the more common things that cause sensory overload and result in stimming:

    • Large noisy crowds can be overwhelming to an autistic child. A crowded shopping mall, a sports match and a loud party are all examples of situations that can provoke a stimming session.
    • Conversely, a child may stim as a result of lack of sensory input. The stimming seems to stimulate the brain and in these circumstances can be useful.
    • Mastering new skills may cause an autistic child to stim as a form of self-calming. The stress of learning is relieved as they rock, hum or rub.
    • Social skills are weak in autistic children and they may resort to stimming if too many social demands are placed on them. This can take place at school, at home, or when visiting friends.

    It is important to balance the value the stimming has to the child against the effects of him stopping it. While it is possible to reduce the frequency and intensity of stimming, it is still a form of retreat and a comfort when a child is over stimulated.

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    Helpful Hints on How to Stop a Child Stimming

    There are a number of ways to address the problem of stimming in children. In many cases a multifaceted approach will bring the best results. Once the triggers have been identified, work on helping the child to stop their stimming involves teachers, caregivers and other family members. Here are some suggestions of how this can be done:

    • Remove a child from a situation that is known to cause stimming. This can mean taking them out of a busy store or away from a crowd at a wedding. If these scenarios can be avoided, so much the better.
    • If the stimming is caused by auditory overload, earplugs or an MP3 player with earphones can block the confusing noises from the child’s ears and allow him to settle down.
    • It is possible for a therapist to teach an autistic child to replace one form of stimming with another. For example, a child can be taught to snap rubber bands instead of spinning in circles.
    • Exercise can be helpful when a child is prone to stimming. Take him for a walk or run when he appears on the verge of a repetitive behavior and this may settle him enough so he does not need to to do it.
    • Distraction also has its place, and a child may stop repetitive stimming actions if offered a choice of activities that he enjoys.
    • Medication can be used but is generally avoided in children unless the problem is severe. Antipsychotic drugs reduce repetitive behaviors and aggression but are accompanied by some serious side effects such as weight gain, sleepiness and fatigue as well as increased heart rate and blood pressure.

    Getting a child to stop stimming is not always an easy exercise but with perseverance and effort, the stimming can be modified and reduced, even if it is not eliminated.