Stimming autistic children and teenagers

Stimming: autistic children and teenagers

What is stimming?

Stimming refers to self-stimulating behaviours that typically involve repetitive gestures or sounds. Everyone experiences stims in some fashion. Others may not always understand.

Stimming is one of the autism diagnosis criteria. This is not because stimming is invariably associated with autism. It’s because autistic people’s stimming can spiral out of control and cause complications.

Stimming isn’t always a harmful thing that needs to be stopped. However, it should be handled when it is disturbing to others and impairs quality of life.

Learn more about stimming, when it needs to be managed, and where to get help.

How is stimming different in autistic individuals?

Almost everyone practices self-stimulating conduct. When you’re nervous or need to relieve tension, you could bite your nails or twirl your hair over your fingers.

Stimming might become so habitual that you aren’t even aware of it. Most individuals consider it to be harmless behaviour. You understand when and where it is unacceptable.

For example, if you’ve been drumming your fingers on your desk for 20 minutes, you recognize that you’re annoying others and decide to stop.

Stimming Examples

Pay attention to their conduct if you’re wondering if a loved one or child is stimming. Stimming implies repetitive behaviour that goes beyond what is culturally or socially acceptable.

Nail-biting and hair-twirling, for example, can be distracting but are normally accepted in most social circumstances, such as at work or school. Stimuli, such as hand flapping or spinning in circles, typical in autistic people, are less socially acceptable.

Autistic stimming can also be seen as:

  • Finger-flicking or snapping (autistic hand gestures)
  • Back-and-forth pacing
  • Words or phrases that are repeated (echolalia)
  • Blinking rapidly
  • Humming
  • Door opening and closing
  • Switching on and off
  • Ear covering and uncovering
  • Object spinning or tapping

Causes of Stimming

Although the exact reason for stimming is debated, most specialists regard it as a mechanism for emotional self-regulation.

Sensory processing impairment is common in autistic people. They may overreact or under-react to stimuli such as sounds, light, textures, and odours, depending on the type of response this creates.

A strong odour, for example, may overwhelm a person with a hypersensitive sensitivity, causing sensory overload. Someone suffering from a hypersensitive reaction may not react to or even notice a loud noise.

Can Stimming Tests Determine the Cause?

While stimming is a key aspect of autism, it is not a condition in and of itself. Autism can be difficult to diagnose. There is no single medical test that can pinpoint it. Autism, as a spectrum condition, manifests differently regarding symptoms and severity in different persons.

To be diagnosed with autism, an individual must meet all three of the DSM-5 criteria listed below:

A lack of social and emotional reciprocity

A person cannot converse normally, share interests or emotions with others, or initiate or respond to social relationships.

A lack of nonverbal communication

A person is unable to understand social cues or communicate non-verbally. (such as with facial expressions).

A lack of ability to form, maintain, and comprehend relationships

Included are difficulties changing actions to social contexts, engaging in imaginative play, and displaying interest in friendships or creating acquaintances.

Tips to Manage Stimming

There is no compelling reason to prohibit autistic people from stimming if it is not causing issues. They must be regulated only when stims are extremely distracting (like in a school classroom) or harmful (e.g., causing injury).

It can be difficult to change stimming habits. Caregivers may believe disciplining an autistic child for stim will make them stop, but this can only worsen the condition. Punishment ignores the underlying cause of a child’s stimming.

Remember that stimming is a coping mechanism. It is not “bad” behaviour but is not always intentional.

There are several approaches for assisting an autistic person with stimming:

Behaviour analysis in action

This type of behavioural therapy aims to help autistic children adjust to social circumstances they may not understand. Positive reinforcement for positive behaviours and punishments for poor behaviours are included. ABA therapy is divisive. Some specialists believe it is neither acceptable nor helpful to assist autistic persons.

Sensory diet

A “sensory diet” is a type of occupational therapy in which activities are scheduled into a child’s day to fulfil their specific sensory needs in order to lessen stimming.

Environmental modifications

The risk of sensory overload can be reduced by reducing environmental and social pressures. This may entail putting a child in smaller classes, soundproofing windows and rooms, and removing textures or lights that are bothersome to them.

Tools for Stress Management

Introducing things such as a stress ball or fidget can assist some people in transitioning to new stims. A swing set or a designated quiet room with noise-cancelling headphones can also be beneficial.

Consult Dr Arif Khan for expert care

Dr Arif Khan is a renowned British Board-certified Consultant Paediatric Neurologist. Dr Arif has helped several children with neurological issues and delivered excellent outcomes. 

Book your appointment here!