So-called stimming, or self-soothing behaviors, are common among people with autism. Sometimes, they're helpful. When children feel overwhelmed or upset, the activity seems to calm them.
But sometimes, they're harmful or outright dangerous. Some stimming involves hitting, kicking, or biting. That can quickly translate into injury.
If your child engages in stimming, there are six strategies you can use to ease the urge.
Be aware that some forms of stimming are helpful. Sometimes, it's best to help others understand what your child is doing rather than trying to suppress the activity altogether.
What Is Stimming?
We all engage in a form of stimming from time to time. When we jiggle our feet during a long meeting or when we suck our teeth between meals, we're self-soothing with our bodies. Autism stimming is similar, but the activities are unusual and extreme, so they're hard for outsiders to ignore.
Experts say common autism stimming behaviors include:
- Rocking back and forth.
- Jumping up and down repeatedly.
- Spinning around and around, either on swings or while standing upright.
- Flapping hands at the wrist.
- Flicking fingers.
- Repeating sounds, phrases, or words.
Actions like this aren't inherently dangerous. Your child can't cause harm by waving their hands or jumping around. But some stimming acts are different, and they can cause your child physical pain or damage.
For example, Autism Speaks says some children engage in sensory-seeking stimming. Children like this struggle to hold still or keep their hands to themselves. Sometimes, they chew on non-food items, like dirt or sticks or hair. These objects can lodge in the body, and that could require surgical intervention.
Other children engage in self-harm as a form of stimming, experts say. They might pull their hair, bite their fingers or arms, or hit themselves in the head and neck. During the episode, the child is so engaged in the activity that the pain isn't a deterrent. If left to continue the acts, the child can cause severe damage.
Even children who don't put their safety at risk can be harmed by the activity. Some children are teased for their decisions, and others are punished. A child jumping up and down during class, for example, could be reprimanded for causing a disruption to learning.
6 Ways to Stop Stimming
Whether you'd like your child to perform better at school, or you're concerned that your child will cause self-harm or harm others, you can help to reduce stimming behaviors. Here are six helpful suggestions.
1. Check With a Medical Professional
Some acts that seem like stimming are caused by very real health concerns. For example, a family worried that their autistic child was stimming by repeated snorting. As experts explain, that behavior could be caused by a sinus problem instead.
Before you assume that a child's habitual behavior has its roots in autism, take the child to visit their pediatrician for advice. Explain what you've seen, and ask for testing to rule out any underlying illness. Do this before you take any other step to address stimming.
2. Look for the Source and Redirect
People with autism often start stimming in response to a trigger. Spot it, and you can intervene with a solution that doesn't involve stimming.
Common stimming triggers include:
- Loud noises.
- Strong scents.
- Bright lights.
- Changes in routine.
- Strong emotion, including excitement, fear, sadness, or happiness.
When you notice your child starting to stim, begin a conversation. Ask the child, "What are you feeling right now?" Some children may answer right away, while others may not have advanced verbal skills. If your child can't talk with you, it’s critical to try to detect what’s going on with your senses.
If you spot a harmful trigger (such as a loud noise), remove it. Experts explain that you must avoid a confrontational posture during these episodes. You're trying to reduce the child's stress, not augment it.
Don't restrain your child or use physical punishments. Instead, encourage the child to leave the trigger with a promise of a snack, a gift, or a reward. Keep your voice low and your face soft.
3. Try Speech Therapy
Experts explain that stimming is a form of communication. Some people with autism have family members who can interpret each stim, and they use that information to tell them how the person is feeling. A speech therapist could help a person with autism learn to use words, not stims.
For example, during speech therapy, a child could learn to say, "Too noisy!" That phrase could replace rocking back and forth or screaming. Outsiders know what the person needs, and stimming behaviors are no longer required.
4. Try Exercise
Physical activity keeps your child engaged in something fun, and experts say children with autism often emerge from an exercise session with a stronger sense of focus.
Sprinkle short exercise sessions throughout your day. If your child engages in physical stimming, such as jumping up and down, make that part of your fitness routine. A quick, 10-minute break to release built-up stress could help the urge to stim fade.
5. Encourage Safe Stimming
For many people with autism, stimming is remarkably soothing. They can't imagine life without it. If that's the case for your child, look for ways to incorporate stimming into daily life.
You could try:
- Scheduling stimming. Give your child several stim breaks throughout the day, and encourage your child to treat them like private, self-care appointments.
- Framing stimming as a private activity. Encourage your child to think of stimming as something people do alone because it could hurt or worry other people.
- Searching for a replacement. If your child makes loud grunting noises, try headphones with loud music. If snapping and tapping cause classmates concern, try stress balls or tennis balls. Look for ways to help your child engage in the activities without harming the self or others. Let your child tell you if your replacements work or if you should keep searching for answers.
6. Schedule ABA Therapy Sessions
Many of the techniques we've described here have their roots in applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy. They take time to implement, and the more children can practice, the better. If you're struggling with stimming, asking for a professional's help is wise.
During an ABA therapy session, professionals analyze your child's behavior to determine when the stimming starts. Then, they suggest modifications that can help remove stimming triggers. They may also offer stim alternatives that won't stand out or harm your child or others.
ABA therapy is intensive, and sessions happen multiple times each week. To children, these sessions can seem like games or play. Therapists work hard to keep the tone light and the rewards meaningful. All the while, your child is learning techniques that could make life better.
Should You Stop All Stimming?
People with autism explain stimming much differently than their parents and peers might. To some activists, stimming is a core part of who they are and how they cope throughout the day. To remove that, they say, is to force them to suppress who they really are.
Experts say some people use stimming to:
- Calm anxiety.
- Understand their bodies.
- Handle overwhelming emotions.
Others stim because it simply feels good. Keeping their impulses hidden all day long is exhausting, and they look forward to private moments when they can make noises, move their bodies, and be themselves without judgment.
Autistic adults tell researchers that stims can become accepted behavior if the outside world just understood what the movement meant to them. If your child is engaging in seemingly harmless behavior, yet you've heard complaints from teachers or peers, open up a conversation about why your child moves this way and what it means. Perhaps your talk could foster a deeper understanding in your community while allowing your child to feel accepted and loved.
If your child is stimming in a harmful way, take action. The lessons you teach now can ensure that your child has the best chance of a healthy, happy adulthood.
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