About the Author: Dr. Yost Abrams received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley and is a fellow with ZERO TO THREE. She is a parenting expert and early childhood researcher. Dr. Abrams specializes in parent-child attachment relationships, social-emotional development, and infant mental health.
Children start making sense of their worlds from a very young age, and they do so through understanding and responding to stimuli. Sensory processing differs for every child, particularly for those living with specific neurodevelopmental conditions. These children may even prioritize self-stimulation—or “stimming“—when attempting to understand what is happening around them.
Below, we cover what stimming is, and we also identify some of the different types of stimming behaviors children may experience. Additionally, we explain the connection between autism and stimming, as well as how caregivers and parents can be exceptional support before, during, and after these experiences.
Stimming involves repetitive behaviors or body movements used to control sensory input. People may experience these stereotypic behaviors to reduce overstimulation or understimulation, and they may even stim out of general comfort or self-regulation. Stimming behaviors can be categorized into auditory, olfactory, tactile, vestibular, and visual stimming.
As mentioned above, this self-stimulation is different for everybody, so it is important to understand the various types of stimming. Examples of stimming behaviors include (but are not limited to):
Stimming is not inherently a bad thing. However, depending on the intensity of the child’s stims, the actions may prevent them from completing tasks, enjoying hobbies, learning at school, or participating in social situations. As a result, you may be questioning whether your child can stop their stimming behaviors entirely.
If you are wondering about how to deal with repetitive behavior, keep in mind that autistic children cannot simply stop stimming. So, it is important to refrain from punishing your child when they are stimming. If you attempt to suppress one of your child’s repetitive moments, they will pick up other forms of stimming to replace the removed actions.
Additionally, punishments could cause harm to your child’s self-esteem and have a lasting impact as they age. Instead, you can think about working to address the root cause for the repetitive movements. For example, if your child repeatedly rubs their ears or head, their actions could signal that they are experiencing chronic pain, an ear infection, or a migraine.
On the other hand, some children may engage in self-stimulatory behavior that is actually self-injurious, such as head banging or smacking. If you are concerned that your child is harming themselves or others due to their stimming, it can be wise to have a medical professional examine them for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other mental health conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
It is common for younger kids to repeatedly flap their hands or kick their legs. However, though repetitive movements may be a normal part of your child’s development, they may also indicate ASD. In fact, these movements are a critical component of diagnostic criteria per the DSM-5, and your child could be using stimming as a way to block out or encourage additional sensory input.
Stimming in children with autism is usually more obvious, as their repetitive behaviors will last for longer periods of time. Additionally, children with autism may resort to stimming to try and communicate with you. For instance, they may feel frustrated and cannot verbally express their feelings.
As you interact with your child, it will be key to pay attention to—and recognize the difference between—body movements as a means to understand their physical coordination versus as a means to soothe pain or manage emotions. If you feel your child is stimming due to the latter, it can be worth identifying some helpful strategies for working through these feelings.
As stated, when it comes to how to deal with repetitive behavior, stopping stims can be unhelpful to you and your child. We put together a few strategies you can try with your child that will allow them to both fully embrace who they are and strive to be at their best.
When it comes to helping your child manage their self-stimulatory behavior, ensure your child is in a calm and safe environment. Providing this atmosphere is essential; this space will allow for your child to freely stim without judgment, or reduce the likelihood of negative stim triggers like anxiety and stress. Some children appreciate having music or a favorite chair, while others may enjoy silence and a clutter-free environment. By promoting an area in which your child will feel empowered, they may naturally let go of stimming behaviors that no longer serve them, especially movements that can put themselves or other people in danger.
While curating a comforting physical space is paramount, you can also decrease the probability of triggers by keeping anxiety or overwhelm at bay. For instance, you can prepare your child for their day by informing them about any plans you have for your family. You can even consider a visual schedule that includes pictures and words, as your child will be able to easily see their routine and gain a better sense of the day’s activities.
It is also a good idea to communicate with loved ones and other caregivers about your child’s routine. This way, you can encourage a strong support system that can successfully uphold routines and enthusiastically encourage safe stimming habits if needed.
You can also offer alternatives to stimming that will seem more appealing to your child. Consider compelling objects like fidget toys or stress balls—your child can concentrate on playing with these and, in turn, they will not necessarily feel the need to partake in the experiences of stimming. Instead, they can focus on developing self-soothing behaviors that will be effective outlets in both the short and long term.
On the same hand, depending on your child’s needs, it may also be worth exploring exercise. Some types of exercise, such as high-intensity training, provide a healthy outlet that may reduce stereotypic behaviors. Furthermore, you can consider medicine or occupational therapy as potential treatment options. Even a combination of these efforts can prove to be beneficial for your child, so consider speaking with your family’s trusted doctor before navigating possible solutions.
Above all, stimming is not unusual for both neurotypical and neurodivergent children. Repetitive movements in autistic children are common. If you notice repetitive motion from your child, you can schedule a free consultation with our team. We offer comprehensive evaluations as well as insights and support tailored to every family.
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