Our Cleveland ABA therapists are far from the only ones who are well-informed on the fact that restricted interests and repetitive behaviors are among the primary criteria for defining autism in diagnostic criteria. What is less common knowledge, however, is the fact that this can encompass a very broad range of traits that can appear in a vast array of varying combinations and with different levels of severity. Stimming, a common behavior among people with autism, can be generally be understood as a form of repetitive behavior – but it gets a little more complicated than that. And understanding WHY people do it is important to informing how we approach it in therapy, at home, at school, and in everyday life.
Repetitive behaviors are among the first to appear in very young children with autism. They’re often apparent for people across the spectrum, but they may be more obvious or pronounced in those with cognitive deficits. However, they are less studied (and therefore less understood) than the other primary identifier of autism: Social and communication difficulties.
What Exactly is Stimming – and How is it a Repetitive Behavior?
Stimming can be thought of as a subset of repetitive movements.
It can involve things like:
- Flapping hands
- Snapping or flicking fingers
- Repeated verbalizations
- Fiddling with objects
They’re categorized as a repetitive behavior because the person engages in them over and over again in a given time or place.
Does Stimming Behavior Have a Function?
The word “stim” is short for “self-stimulatory behavior.” Some Cleveland ABA therapists and other professionals shy away from categorizing the function as solely self-stimulatory, there may be intensified pressure on the person with the diagnosis to suppress them. And this may not be a good thing because, as people with autism will often say themselves, stimming can serve important functional purposes to their own mental health and physical well-being.
This is important to note because historically, parents, teachers, and others have labeled stimming behaviors as “disruptive” or “inappropriate.”
But there’s a growing body of evidence that stims can help people with autism relieve themselves of sensory overload. In turn, this helps them better cope with intense anxiety, avoid meltdowns, and express their emotions.
Others say that engaging in stimming helps them to generate or hang onto a sense of body awareness. It may also help them focus their concentration when they’re feeling otherwise overwhelmed. Further, it may be a means of communicating their emotional or mental state to others when using words to do so is difficult.
So forcing kids not to engage in stimming may be unhealthy, ultimately causing more harm than good.
Of course, different people on the spectrum may have different purposes for different stims – and it may even shift from time-to-time in the same individual, depending on what’s happening around them.
In some cases, it can be harmful to themselves or others. For instance, if a repetitive behavior stim involves banging their head against a wall, that can’t continue.
There is also, of course, the potential for social alienation or academic/professional consequences for engaging in stims.
Should I Be Encouraging or Suppressing My Child’s Stimming?
This answer to this question truly comes down to the behavior, the individual, and the setting.
Years ago, the common consensus was to eliminate these behaviors – sometimes in ways that were extreme (and often incredibly harmful) such as powerful antipsychotic drugs or physical interventions.
It’s really important for parents, teachers, Cleveland ABA therapists to come together as a team to discuss whether certain stimming behaviors truly need to be addressed, or whether there’s an opportunity for better education/awareness/accommodations in service of what’s best for the child.
When there is a repetitive behavior stim that appears to be disruptive or if it’s preventing the person from participating in meaningful activities, educational opportunities, or relationships, then we may want to start by analyzing the function of that behavior. From there, we can figure out if there’s a way to help them meet their needs or serve that function without impeding their everyday lives.
For example, let’s say the stim is spinning in circles and it’s preventing a child from participating in their preschool class instruction and it’s disrupting the other students. We study the “why” of the behavior, and determine it’s helping the child to soothe their anxiety when their in the classroom and feeling overstimulated. We may be able to suggest another calming action or behavior that they can engage in that is less disruptive. Sometimes, having regular movement breaks and sensory input can help reduce this anxiety/need for the stim in the first place.
In that scenario, we do not categorize the stim as “bad.” In fact, we recognize it’s serving an important purpose. We respect and meet the needs of the individual with an alternative that helps them to still engage in their daily lives and avoid adverse consequences to their education and peer relationships.
If you have questions about your child’s stimming or how to handle it, our dedicated Cleveland ABA therapists can help.
Therapy & Wellness Connection – your connection to a life without limitations – provides ABA therapy to children in Brecksville-Broadview Heights, Cleveland, Akron, and surrounding communities. We also offer summer camp, day programs, education services, vocational counseling and more. Call us at (330) 748-4807 or send us an email.
Understanding Stimming: Repetitive Behaviors with a Purpose, Dec. 7, 2020, American Psychiatric Association
More Blog Entries:
5 To-Dos After Cleveland Autism Diagnosis, May 13, 2022, Cleveland ABA Therapy Blog