Have you ever noticed yourself tapping your foot, biting your nails, twirling your pen, twisting your hair, or doodling on paper? We all engage in behaviors like these to regulate our body when we are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, bored, etc. Even though we engage in these behaviors almost unknowingly, they are coping mechanisms to handle anxiety, sensory overloads, and reduced sensory input (boredom). These behaviors are called self-stimulatory behaviors (aka ‘stimming’). We all experience hyper/hypo-sensitivities to various stimuli, just in different ways. Self-stimulatory behaviors keep our brain neurons firing while our mind or body have unmet sensory needs. Stimming can include sensations involved in vision, sound, touch, movement, taste, smell, and balance.
If you notice your child engaging in a lot of stimming behaviors, it is important to understand the reason for the behaviors and to understand that stimming is not generally harmful. The reason for stimming is often the need for sensory input, which varies from one person to the next. Sometimes, stimming behaviors can disrupt learning or attention if a person is hyper-focused on stimming and is unable to focus on learning material (more on this later), however stimming is also a very important part of calming our nervous systems. The neurological workings of stimming are not fully understood, but research suggests that stimming arouses the nervous system as the brain releases beta-endorphins (which produce dopamine) and gives us all those happy, comfortable feelings that we like.
Though we all engage in self-stimulatory behaviors (almost daily), stimming is often associated with Autism and is often indicated by noticeable, seemingly abnormal behaviors (e.g. repetitive hand flapping, staring at lights, rocking body). People with Autism may stim more noticeably or differently than people without Autism. However, stimming behaviors do not mean a person has Autism. These behaviors can be found in people with sensory processing disorders and those without any disorders at all.
Common Stimming Behaviors for Children with Autism
- Hand flapping
- Body rocking
- Hitting head or body parts
- Lining up toys
- Repeating noises, words, phrases
- Waving or moving fingers or hands in front of eyes
- Biting objects or body parts
- Making loud vocalizations
- Scripting lines from movies
- Watching the same motion over and over
Should you stop self-stimulatory behaviors in children?
Not necessarily. Your child is probably stimming from an unmet sensory need and if we try to stop these behaviors, we may increase the amount of sensory input the child requires. Unless the child is self-harming, stimming can be beneficial to your child. They are doing what feels good for them in their body in that moment in order to feel regulated and to feel joy. It’s okay to let your child stim! In fact, stimming can soothe the nervous system, comfort kids, and relieve anxiety and other negative emotions. You may even want to engage with your child who is stimming by stimming along with them. I know it sounds strange, but think about it. By joining in with their hand flapping or tapping a table, you are telling the child you understand their needs. You are able to interact with them in their world rather than forcing them to conform to the world around them. You allow the child to feel safe to be them. According to the Autism Treatment Center of America (ATCA), when joining in a stimming behavior with your child, the child often increases eye contact, gravitates toward listeners, interacts more with others, and even increases vocalizations. I am not saying every child needs this or that it is helpful in every situation, but try it out and see! You may find it brings more meaningful interactions with your child.
What about self-harming or distracting stimming behaviors?
For some children, stimming can be harmful or interfere with their attention, learning, and socialization. Self-harmful stimming might look like squeezing, biting, hitting, head banging, or scratching. While other, non-harmful behaviors can be encouraged or accepted, self-harming behaviors can be replaced or redirected. The first thing to do is identify the behavior and identify what sensory need it is meeting. Notice or write down each time the child engages in the behaviors, what they were doing before, during, and after the behavior. Maybe he stims and scratches when he sits too long, or perhaps she stims and hits her head when she’s very excited. Next, note where the sensory input is being targeted; is it in his fingers? Her whole body? Is the stimming happening because of a sound? Once you discover the sensory need, you can try other self-stimulatory behaviors that are safer or less distracting.
Examples of Replacement Behaviors:
Sitting too long: Have child request for movement breaks
Excited: Squeeze fists or clap hands
Rocking: Body squeezes or big, tight hugs
Hand flapping: Squeeze or push hands together
If your child stims, I advise you to talk with your therapist to get the best individualized care for their specific needs. If stimming becomes problematic, self-harming, or interfering with daily functioning, these behaviors can be replaced and/or redirected. Talk with a professional for specific advice about your child.
Most of the time, a child stims in order to fulfill an unmet sensory need and stimming creates a sensory release and has a calming effect. Remember, everyone stims in different ways. My challenge for you is to observe your own stimming tendencies and what sensory needs might go unnoticed. It’s a great start to understanding your child’s own sensory-seeking behaviors.
Liana Martinez, M.A. CCC-SLP