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Autism, Stimming and Management

Child lining up toy cars

What is stimming?

Stimming, also known as self-stimulation or stereotypic behaviors is one of the many indicators of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

How does stims look like?

A person who is stimming shows repetitive body movements that can involve all the five senses. It can also be a person moving an object in a repetitive motion or doing something the same way repetitively (e.g. opening and shutting doors).

What causes stims?

Research studies suggests that stimming is a way to seek internal pleasure and it is soothing for them. It is also known that the brain releases a brain chemical that increases pleasure when a person is stimming. Sometimes stimming occurs due to over-stimulation and this is often observed in children who often experience sensory overload and they stim because they want to stay calm.

Below are some triggers of stimming behaviors

  • to stimulate oneself
  • to block sensory overload
  • to overcome anxiety
  • to express frustration
  • to avoid undesirable situations or activities
  • to get attention
  • to avoid attention
  • to express distress

Types of stims

Verbal Stimming (speech and communication)

  • Repetitive speech (e.g. scripted replies, lyrics, movie lines, a specific word or sentence, etc)
  • Making repetitive sounds (e.g. grunting, humming, high-pitched noises, etc)

Auditory Stimming (sense of hearing)

  • Repetitive actions that creates the same sound e.g. dropping objects, banging chairs, etc
  • Snapping finger, flapping, opening and shutting doors, etc

Visual Stimming (sense of sight)

  • Staring blankly at objects
  • Staring while flapping hands
  • Staring while opening and shutting doors
  • Lining up toys
  • Blinking repetitively
  • Turning lights on and off repetitively

Tactile Stimming (sense of touch/ feeling)

  • Rubbing and scratching of objects or body
  • Repetitive motion of opening and closing fists
  • Tapping fingers repetitively

Vestibular Stimming (sense of balance and movement)

  • Rocking back and forth or left to right
  • Spinning continuously
  • Jumping repetitively

Olfactory Stimming (sense of smell)

  • Smelling objects or people repetitively

Taste Stimming (sense of taste)

  • Tasting unusual objects (e.g. extremely spicy food)
  • Licking hands or objects (e.g. walls)

How to manage stims?

As stims are triggered by many reasons, it is important for parents to pay attention to their child’s stims to find out the triggers. As people with autism are prone to overstimulation and sensory overload, it is important to find out the reasons and provide the appropriate tools to prevent the sensory overload (e.g. noise-cancelling headphones, sunglasses, fidget toys, etc). Medication can also be considered if your child is hypersensitive.

Tips to reduce stimming:

  1. Observe the stims, find out the trigger and think of an alternative behavior to replace the stims. When the child stims, redirect him/her to do the alternative behavior until the behavior is replaced successfully.
  2. Break the behavior by redirecting the child to perform a simple task (E.g. clap hands, give a hug, etc.) then guide the child to work on an activity to keep the child engaged.
  3. Prepare sensory or fidget toys to keep your child engaged (e.g. tactile toys, moldable toys, Lego blocks, etc). Stims are reduced when the child is engaged.
  4. Use stims as a reward. Have your child complete tasks and instructions to work for stimming time. This will help your child to learn to control his stims and observe appropriate time where stimming is allowed.
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