Autistic children and adults do many things that typical children and adults cannot understand, and the one that is often most prominent is self-stimulation. Called “stimming” in the autism world, self-stimulation is repetitive behavior used solely to engage the senses. Examples include humming, clapping, hand flapping, manipulating objects (such as ripping paper), or running in circles. While these behaviors may seem inappropriate or unnecessary to others, those who suffer from autism are not simple looking for attention or trying to be disruptive–stimming is a way to reduce the stresses of the world.
Autism is a disorder that causes people to react to sensory stimuli in non-typical ways. Stimming is one way of dealing with this bodily malfunction. For example, rocking is a common form of stimming. Some autistic people have asserted that rocking back a forth a few times helps them refocus when they become overly sensitive to the world around them. We all do this to some extent–can you remember a time when you tapped your pencil repetitively because you were nervous about a test or played with your note cards before giving a big speech. Often these and other behaviors, like biting your nails or whistling, are involuntary but help us calm down. Some autistic people need this calming effect every day, multiple times. Others simple enjoy the sensory feelings derived from stimming. In the same way that you may enjoy a back massage’s feelings, an autistic individual may enjoy the sensations felt from ripping paper.
Remember, however, that these stimming behaviors can become obsessions. Divide stimming into two categories–calming and excitatory. Calming stimming helps a child refocus, such as we all do when we are nervous, while excitatory stimming directs a child’s attention in a negative way. Typical children are said to be “wound up” for example, and for an autistic child, being wound up may mean clapping, yelling sounds, or running. This kind of stimming is detrimental, as it interferes with attention and reinforces inappropriate behavior.
A branch of stimming includes attachment to certain items. Most children have a favorite doll or blanket that goes everywhere, but for an autistic child, this habit is never broken. The item may be something that is textually pleasing or something that the autistic individual likes to smell, hear, or look at. Along with attachment to a specific item, autistic individuals also may find an attachment to organizing items. For example, he or she may repetitively self-stimulate by lining up items. This too can become an obsession.
Stimming can be a difficult habit to break because it is so pleasant to an autistic individual. Some stimming is not bad, for the same reasons in which we all self-stimulate when we are nervous. However, if a child’s stimming is interfering with learning, disrupting others, or becoming an obsession or addiction, steps should be taken to reduce this action. Discourage stimming if it makes sense–every case is different and therefore, no steadfast rules regarding stimming can be set. Stimming is all about comfort, and your child, autistic or not, should be comfortable as long as his or her activities do not interfere with others or are not self-damaging. In regards to stimming, reduction of these behaviors is ideal, but remember that complete elimination is usually not necessary. Autistic individuals perceive the world in a different way and we must take that into account. Removing of stopping the stimming entirely can lead to a sensory overload.