Stimming – Should I Make My Child Stop?
There we were, sitting in the middle of an eerily quiet church service in a new city. We clearly picked the wrong one to visit…you could hear a pin drop! Prayer begins, and little man starts humming loudly…”uh huh huh huh huh.” Sigh. Then big brother decides it’s time to start shaking his head so vigorously that his headphones fly off. Queue purse snatch and fast exit…stimming has won this battle!
Usually the boys do fairly well, but they definitely get more anxious in new settings, so I should have seen it coming. Their stimming behaviors help to calm them. Sometimes they shake their heads or flap their hands. Big brother is usually more subtle when he’s anxious, with simple tapping or rubbing of his thumbs against each finger, over and over. Little man decided to take up vocal stimming, with a hum that calms him down. I usually wait it out and see if they will settle, but I took the opportunity to exit an uncomfortably quiet service that time!
What’s the right way to handle stimming? I have heard so many people questioning how to handle these coping mechanisms. Many parents believe they should stop the behaviors altogether, to make their children appear more “normal.” There are even some therapies, especially ABA, which try to eliminate them. What’s the appropriate response?
What is stimming?
Before we can determine whether or not to stop the behavior, it is important to understand what stimming actually is, and why people with autism do it. Stimming is a shortened version of the term “self-stimulating behaviors.”
It presents in many ways. Stimming can look like flapping hands or snapping fingers, chewing everything, watching wheels spin, rocking back and forth, picking skin, and countless other behaviors. It is a way for autistic individuals to receive sensory input, block out unwanted sensory input, communicate, process anxiety, and find balance.
What’s the issue then? It sounds like stimming is a good thing. So why do people want to stop it?
Check out this easy read about stimming for more info!
Should I make my child stop stimming?
Many stimming behaviors are subtle, and even neurotypical adults stim without realizing it. You’ve seen it – hair twirling, leg shaking, nail biting, pen clicking. Those are all examples of socially acceptable stims, but there are a slew of others that draw attention in public.
In general, it is not necessary (or advised) to snuff out your child’s self-regulatory behaviors, unless they are causing problems. While there are many benefits to stimming, there are three instances where it is frowned upon.
1)If the stimming behaviors are socially unacceptable
Many stimming behaviors are considered socially unacceptable. People just aren’t used to seeing things like spinning, hand-flapping, rocking, head shaking, and other behaviors that are pretty normal to us. And for those kinds of behaviors, there really us no good reason to make your child stop, unless they are causing a disturbance. Use your judgment in each situation.
Using judgment in public
If your child is rocking or spinning at a birthday party, let them! If they flap their hands in excitement, so what? If they are snapping or clicking while playing on the playground, it’s totally fine.
On the other hand…
If you’re sitting in church and your child gets up and starts spinning, it’s time for a redirection or removal. Some people will disagree with me (and that’s fine!), but I believe it is best to treat our autistic children with the same principles as we would neurotypical children.
Let me explain.
Crying is a perfectly normal response for a hungry, sleepy, or wet baby, right? But most of us wouldn’t just let our little bundle wail during a funeral, a wedding, or a church service. We would try to calm them; and if they continued, most of us would quietly get up and remove ourselves with the crying baby, so as to not cause a disruption. We would step out and change the baby, or rock them until they are calm, and then return to our seat once they are quiet.
Similarly, if your toddler is throwing a tantrum at a movie, I hope that you pick them up and take them out of the theater for a few moments, until they can quiet down. If you’re at the grocery store, no problem – it’s not like the shoppers are trying to focus on the overhead music. I’m sure your judgment will help you decide whether to allow your child’s behavior to continue, or to remove them from the situation until they are able to return calmly.
If we remove our nuerotypical children from certain situations when they are being disruptive, we should treat our autistic children just the same. When they are stimming in a disruptive manner at a time when quietness, stillness, or reverence are required, it is only fair to remove them from the situation as well, until they are able to commence without disrupting others.
If they are humming, or doing some other stimming behavior that is causing a disruption during a quiet or reverent event, use the same tactics. Try to calm them, by redirecting or offering some subtle sensory input. If they continue distracting others, quietly step out with them for a few minutes. Once they are calm, return to your seats.
The key is discerning your motivation. If you want to stop a stimming behavior because you’re concerned about what other people think, your motives need checking. The goal should not be to force our children to look good in the public eye, but to help them be able to function, to the best of their ability, in the real world. If you’re concerned about causing a disruption, try redirection or removal for a short time. But make sure to return once they are calm, so they know they can’t get away with using their behaviors to opt out of events.
2)If the child is injuring them self or others
This one should go without saying. If your child is injuring them self or someone else with their stimming behaviors, it definitely needs to stop. Immediately.
Try placing your child on a crash pad if they are banging their head against something hard. Get them some boxing gloves if they are punching things or people – and have them practice on a mattress or something else safe. If they are scratching or picking their skin, offer them a bouncy ball to pick apart. Those are just some simple redirection ideas, but it can get much more complex.
Self-injurious behaviors (or SIBs) can be much more severe. If your child stims by using an SIB, it is important to figure out what is causing it. A few things that can drastically change the frequency of these behaviors are picture communication cards, vitamin B6, and health assessments.
Your child may be resorting to self-injurious behaviors because they are in pain, and they are unable to tell you. It may be because they are anxious, or there may be some other underlying psychological issue that needs addressed. They may simply be seeking input, and don’t know when to stop. If simple redirection does not significantly decrease the frequency of SIBs, talk to your child’s pediatrician or psychologist about further investigation.
If your child’s stimming behaviors are somehow injuring others, again, it’s time to work on replacing that behavior with some other type of input.
3)If the child is damaging property
Head banging can sometimes get out of control, and you may begin to see holes in your walls. If your child is damaging property somehow with their stimming behaviors, it’s time to replace it. Stims can be replaced with other behaviors, but the underlying cause must be discovered in order to make the switch successful. This way, the child still gets their needs met, without causing harm.
If a child is punching the walls, or breaking things constantly, they may need heavy work or deep pressure input. They may enjoy the sounds accompanying the behavior. They may simply be angry, and are looking for an outlet. All of these issues can be dealt with, and a replacement behavior can be found to meet their specific needs.
How do I know what is causing the stimming behavior?
Knowing what is causing a particular stimming behavior is key to resolving it. Again, there is no need to try to stop stimming behaviors in general, unless they are harmful in some way. For those harmful behaviors, start watching very closely to looks for hints of a cause.
Keep a journal – it can be as simple as writing on your wall calendar. When you see the behavior, write down all the details you can think of:
When does the behavior typically occur? Is there a pattern?
What precedes the stimming behavior? How does your child behave afterwards?
Does anything help calm your child during this stimming behavior? (In other words, if you offer them food, sensory input, food, drink, a calming strategy, etc., does it help them stop?)
What has your child eaten/drank today?
What is the weather like? (No, really. Barometric pressure can cause serious problems for people with sensory issues, including those with autism.)
Has your child taken any medications?
Where has your child been today?
Answering these questions will help you to find patterns associated with your child’s unwanted stimming behaviors. If you can find a pattern, you will have clues to the underlying cause. And knowing the underlying cause can help you find the right replacement behavior.
If you cannot find any patterns, there are a few things you can try, while waiting on a physician’s evaluation:
- Remove all artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners from your child’s diet.
- Try a completely gluten-free and caseine-free (dairy-free) diet.
- Supplement you child’s diet with vitamin B6 and vitamin D. (Deficiency in these can cause a slew of major issues, and many parents see behavioral changes immediately.)
To stim or not to stim
That’s the big question! I hope this has cleared it up for you. Stimming in itself is not a bad thing. Children (and adults) can use these strategies to calm themselves and get the sensory input they need. If people stare, that’s their problem, Mama. But if your child’s stimming behaviors are causing a major disruption, or harm to them self, others, or property, try redirecting them. Otherwise, stim away! How does your child stem? Let me know in the comments!