Stimming in children, or self-stimulating behaviors, are performed by a child with ASD to soothe themselves during times of stress or anxiety or due to sensory processing issues. Stimming behaviors may be visual, auditory, tactile, vestibular (relating to movement) or dealing with taste and smell.
Typical Self-Stimulating Behaviors
The following is a list of typically seen stimming behaviors in children with ASD:
- Staring at lights
- Repetitive blinking
- Moving hands or objects in front of their field of vision
- Snapping fingers
- Vocal sounds (not words)
- Scratching or rubbing skin
- Rocking back and forth
- Licking non-food objects
- Chewing on non-food objects
- Smelling non-food objects or people
- Repetitive speech (known as echolalia)
Why Stimming Behaviors Occur
There are many reasons why children with ASD might engage in stimming behaviors. Several researchers have suggested stimming in children is due to the inability of the autistic brain to properly provide the necessary stimulation people need on a daily basis. For this reason, the autistic person will seek out other means of stimulation to meet this basic need.
Other people with ASD are hypersensitive and crave more stimulation than that required by someone without an autism spectrum disorder. Stimming releases endorphins, similar to an adrenaline rush. The release of these feel good hormones will cause the child to repeat the behavior for the same rush each time.
And then there are those with ASD who may engage in stimming behaviors to calm down when the environment becomes overwhelming. The person with ASD focuses on their stim, such as rocking back and forth or flapping his hands, as a way to calm down and focus their attention inwards.
Dealing Effectively With Stimming Behaviors
People with ASD who engage in stimming behaviors may need interventions to stop or control their behaviors. This is because stimming behaviors can interfere with daily functioning and keep the child from learning or doing what is required. A variety of therapies, such as pplied behavior analysis or Greenspan’s Floortime approach, are helpful in engaging an ASD child with age-appropriate behaviors that can provide stimulation in a more acceptable way. Alternatives can also be provided in lieu of some harmful stims, such as a sensory stick to bite on rather than the child’s arm or someone else.
Try noticing when the stimming behaviors reach a peak, whether it is during a certain time of day or in a certain environment. Making adjustments in these situations, such as allowing an older child to nap during the afternoon or avoiding busy environments may help reduce or even eliminate the stims.
Changing, rather than eliminating the child’s stimming behavior may be the best possible outcome for a child with ASD. Children who repeatedly flap their hands can be taught to tap fingers on their legs or inner arms. For a person who rocks back and forth, the behavior could be changed to tapping a leg. These are more socially acceptable stims that will call less attention to the person with ASD.
Applied behavior analysis can help a child reduce or eliminate their stims by purposefully teaching them alternative behaviors. For example, if a child repeatedly throws a toy in their field of vision as a stim, ABA therapy can replace that stim with a more appropriate means of visual stimulation, such as flashing a light on the wall in a repeated pattern. A therapist will teach the child to get a flashlight, and to turn it on and off and flash the light on a wall through a series of guided steps.
Edelson, Steven M.; “Self Stimulating Behavior (Stimming)"; https://www.autism-help.org/behavior-stimming-autism.htm
Rimland, Bernard; “Stimming behavior in autism”; https://autism-nutrition.com/stimming-behavior-in-autism