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Stopping the Stimming? | The Essential Guide To Autism

Stopping the Stimming?

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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.

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3 Responses

  1. October 3rd, 2006 | 3:32 pm

    I never quite realized this. My daughter, with high-functioning PDD-NOS has been showing the habit of grasping a lock of her hair and brushing it on her cheek or pulling it into her mouth. We have been attempting to stop this, finding it unacceptable for a 12-year-old to be doing, but perhaps this is her way of providing herself with some sensory stimulation. It is the first such action we have seen from her in a very long time, and thought we had overcome such behaviors, but perhaps they reappear from time to time? As I said, she is VERY high-functioning, and usually acts about as typical as a 12-year-old can be. We sometimes forget what her PDD does to her behavior.

  2. kbridges
    November 22nd, 2006 | 2:21 pm

    I am a 40-year-old man, and I have been dealing with neurological issues all of my life. My parents would not deal with them because they saw me as an “underachiever.” I assumed I was. In fact, all throughout college and into my 30’s I thought I was a failure, even though I did succeed at the very things that were my “strengths.” Detail-oriented (to a fault), able to move from one thing to another quickly (because I couldn’t concentrate on any one thing for very long), etc.

    But, I always thought my issues were my fault, and if I could just try harder. It never worked.

    About 5 years ago I finally went to a psychologist, and he diagnosed ADHD and put me on several medications, which only helped me cope with what I could not cope with.

    The past 9 months have been a nightmare for me as my symptoms have worsened. Loud high-pitched noises are unbearable, bright lights also, being touched is painful, concentration is limited, etc. Plus, some weird issues such as seeing things in slow-motion and an increased awareness of my peripheral vision and hearing tones or notes in songs that I have never heard.

    Now, I read this about stimming and realize I have been doing this all of my life. Just another thing. Each time I read about autism I seem to find another symptom that I have. Not all the issues I have are related to autism, but I do have several–enough to make me think that I may fall into the high-functioning category.

    Three months ago, as my symptoms rendered my life almost too much to deal with, I finally went to a neurologist that works with my wife at our hospital. She is very good. Immediately she got me in for a CAT scan to make sure I didn’t have a tumor, since I was getting progressively worse. Thankfully, that was not the case. Her diagnosis (or guess) is that I have electrical problems in my brain, and she put me on Lamictal (anti-seizure med) to try and calm the misfiring. While at first it worked, the relief quickly waned and she has been progressively upping the dosage to try and keep up. I fear that once I reach the highest allowable daily dose that it will cease working again.

    I am desperate at this point, and just would like (need) to hear from someone out there who has dealt with the same type of issues. Am I crazy? I don’t know at this point.


  3. AspieArtist
    January 11th, 2007 | 12:36 pm

    Some people with Autism Spectrum Disorders can become psychotic on ADHD meds. Mostly stimulants. A lot of people with Aspegers are first diagnosed as ADD or ADHD. Stimulants can make us hyper- aware too. Did you talk to the person who gave you your ADHD diagnoses about the meds? You should, that person has a lot of knowlege of possible side effects of meds.

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