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Understanding Repetitive Motions and “Stimming”


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Causes and Effects

Every person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experiences the condition differently, but repetitive behaviors are some of the most common behavioral manifestations of ASD. Parents often notice physical or verbal repetition in their children on the spectrum. This can involve repetition of certain words, phrases, or questions; repetition of parent’s speech back to them rather than producing appropriate responses; a focus on a repetitive activity; or a repetition of a particular physical motion. Repetitive physical motions or vocalizations, often known as “stimming” behaviors, can serve multiple purposes for individuals with autism. Understanding the causes and effects of such behaviors can help parents better understand their children’s communication and emotional expression.

How People with Autism Respond to Repetition

Research has shown that “repetitive movements and manipulation of objects are among the first signs of autism to emerge in toddlers.”[i] Brain imaging studies have found that repetition suppression – the reduction in brain response to a repeated stimulus – is diminished in individuals with more autism-related traits. In other words, the brains of people with autism interpret repeated stimuli differently compared to others. Researchers further speculate that these differences in brain activity could possibly account for some of the “behavioral traits associated with autism, such as rigid and repetitive patterns of behavior and an insistence on sameness.”[ii]

Why Stimming Occurs

The repetitive movements made by some children with autism can prove confusing to parents, who may not understand their purpose or whether they indicate distress. Short for self-stimulatory behavior, “stimming” can take the form of hand flapping, physically rocking back and forth, or similar motions. Stimming can also occur verbally, with repeated humming, grunting, or similar vocalizations. People with ASD may “stim” to calm themselves, decrease stress, express a sense of being overwhelmed, express excitement, or for other reasons. Stimming can regulate the individual’s level of sensory stimulation, by either blocking or shifting the focus from external stimuli or by providing stimulus when there is a perceived lack of it.[iii]

Should Parents Try to Stop Stimming?

Stimming has often been interpreted as disruptive to a child’s social interactions with others or as an obstacle to learning. Some may worry that stimming and similar repetitive behaviors preoccupy children with autism to the detriment of their ability to learn or engage with other stimuli. However, studies have shown that this is usually not the case. In fact, one study found that children with autism seemed more interested in literacy-related objects than their peers, and that stimming and repetitive behaviors had a positive association with this healthy curiosity.[iv] Stimming may also help those with autism better adjust to their surroundings and regulate their emotional state in learning environments.

Contemporary research shows that stimming is not inherently harmful and can be a positive source of emotional regulation and coping for those on the spectrum. Stimming is a way that individuals with autism interface with the world and cope with sensory difficulties. The goal, then, should not be to reduce or eliminate stimming when it is a positive coping mechanism, but rather to ensure that the particular stimming behaviors used by an individual are not harmful to them or disruptive to their daily functioning.

When Can Stimming Become a Problem?

While stimming can normally be a positive coping mechanism for individuals with autism, there are instances where it may be disruptive, or outright harmful to the individual. Certain forms of stimming, such as skin picking or banging one’s head against an object repeatedly, can lead to physical harm even if they are momentarily soothing or stimulating to the individual. There are also situations where certain forms of stimming, such as vocal stimming, where a child may vocalize or repeat words or phrases, may prove disruptive to others, such as the classroom. These instances may require intervention in the form of compassionate treatment and guidance from parents or treatment experts.

Autism Treatment and How it Relates to Stimming

Even in instances of self-harming stimulatory behaviors, the solution is almost never to forcibly stop a behavior which they are using to cope. Such attempts may only aggravate or overwhelm the child further. Instead, redirection towards healthier forms of the behavior can be successful. For instance, a child who stims by striking their head could be given a soft surface, like a pillow, to use as an intermediary step. From there, a behavioral technician can work with the child to find a safer solution in the form of an alternative behavior which the child can use to cope.

In instances of non-harmful stimulatory behaviors, it is usually best to let the child stim. However, in instances where specific forms of stimming may disrupt others or otherwise become a problem, there are a number of techniques parents or care providers can use. The teaching of replacement behaviors can offer the child different forms of stimming which may be safer, more discrete, or otherwise more appropriate for a given environment. It can be valuable to identify triggers for stress or sensory overload in the environment, and to modify the child’s surroundings so as to minimize the chance that a particular kind of disruptive stimming occurs.

Parents and care providers can also help a child build emotional and communication skills, along with healthy coping techniques, which reinforce their ability to respond to new situations. This may involve the development of social “scripts” which individuals with autism can follow in situations where certain forms of stimming could otherwise be dangerous, disruptive, or easily misconstrued by others. Communication with teachers, therapists, and other care providers can also help them understand and accommodate your child’s experience of autism.

Treatment for autism can include work on minimizing damaging or disruptive stimming behaviors, but it should not be about taking an individual’s coping mechanisms away or enforcing an idea of “normalcy” on them. Instead, effective treatment should be compassionate, evidence-based, and should build upon the individual’s current coping strategies to help them achieve new goals and develop new skills in communication, socialization, and cognition.

MySpot Care has over a decade of experience in working with individuals on the spectrum of all ages. With multiple locations in the greater Houston area, our approach combines a contemporary understanding of Applied Behavioral Analysis with individualized treatment planning developed by a team of caring professionals. We will work with your child to develop a plan that is tailored to your child’s developmental goals and needs. If you have more questions about our services, please call us today at (281) 894-1423.

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