Understanding Self Stimulating Behaviour
If we pay close attention we all have some form of stim or self stimulating behaviors. You might see some playing with their hair while chatting with a friend or some might bite their nails when they are nervous or bored. You might find yourself taping your fingers or pencil on a desk while thinking. We all know someone who has an annoying stim like cracking their knuckles every 5 minutes or repeating a phrase over and over.
Self-stimulatory behavior is a repetitive body movements or repetitive movement of objects.
This behavior is common in many individuals with developmental disabilities; and it appears to be common in autism.
Self- stimulatory behavior can involve any one or all senses. Listed below are the five major
senses with examples-
● Visual- staring at lights, repetitive blinking, moving fingers in front of the eyes,
● Auditory- tapping ears, snapping fingers, making vocal sounds
● Tactile- rubbing the skin with one's hands or with another object, scratching
● Vestibular- rocking front to back, rocking side-to-side
● Taste- placing body parts or objects in one's mouth, licking objects
● Smell- smelling objects, sniffing people
There are many reasons why individuals with autism may stim, such as being some reasons such as:
● Oversensitive to the surrounding around them – stimming can calm them down because it lets them focus on just one thing and takes away some of the sensory overload
● Under Sensitive to their surroundings – stimming like hand-flapping or finger-flicking
can stimulate their ‘underactive’ senses
● Anxious – stimming might calm them down and reduce anxiety by focusing their
attention on the stim or by producing a calming change in their bodies
● Excited – some children with ASD might flap their hands when they’re excited. They
sometimes flap for a long time when they’re excited, or flap, squeal and jump up and
down at the same time.
Most of us are aware of and can control our stims, we might tap our toes under the table rather than rock back and forth. People with autism, however, may not be aware of and responsive to others & reactions to their stims. There seem to be circumstances in which some people with autism are not able to control their stims, or find it extremely stressful and difficult to do so.
Activities to Manage Self Stimulating Behaviors
- Working on anxiety
If you watch when and how much your child is stimming, you might be able to work out
whether she’s stimming because she’s anxious. Then you can look at your child’s anxiety
and its causes. For example, is there something new or changed in your child’s
environment? Preparing your child for new situations and teaching him new skills to deal
with things that make him anxious can reduce stimming.
- Encouraging physical activity
Physical activity might reduce stimming by getting your child engaged with others and
keeping them occupied. After exercise, children can often focus better on their work. If
your child is engaged in her work, there’s less motivation to stim. You could try short
sessions of physical activity throughout the day, to break up other activities.
- Create a positive association between stimming and relationship-building.
One way to use stimming as a productive part of the learning process is to allow
stimming as a reinforcer or reward after a period of playful interaction or work. Making time for stimming will allow the child the comfort of being himself, encourage more interactions and actually reduce the total number of hours per day spent stimming.
- Try Replacement Behaviors that Meet the Same Need:
What you will want to do now is try some other behaviors that will replace the self-
stimulatory behavior but that are safer or less distracting. Keep in mind that your child’s
new behavior may not look entirely acceptable, but we are going for more safe or less
You will want to note different replacement behaviors to find what works best for your
child. Keep trying them until one seems to stick or resonate with your child.
Use this chart as a guideline to determine which replacement behaviors might be
appropriate to try with your child based on the information you’ve collected.
Possible Replacement Behaviors
Child Has Been Sitting Too Long
● Have the child request a movement break to do an activity that excites them.
● Offer alternative seating for the child, such as a chair vs. floor, sitting on a pillow, sitting
on a small exercise ball, etc.
● Offer child a fidget toy to play with while sitting (something small and non-distracting
that can keep his hands busy)
Child is Excited
● Replace with clapping hands
● Replace with squeezing hands together
Child is Angry/Upset
● Have child request for a break/go for a walk
● Teach self calming strategies - like deep breathing, counting to 10
Child is Flapping/Sensory Input in Fingers
● Offer child a stress ball or squeezable toy to play with
● Replace with child sitting on hands (to feel that pressure)
Child is Rocking/Sensory Input for Balance and Body
● Have your child rock side to side instead of front to back. This looks more like swaying
along to music than the traditional rocking. It’s also easier to keep his eyes on the teacher
● Offer child a big hug, squeeze him tightly all over his torso to get that pressure
● Have your child request a break to go roll on the floor. Or, roll him up in a blanket like a
Child is Biting Himself/Sensory Input to Mouth
● Replace with giving your child something to chew on.
● Offer your child a chewy, sour candy. This can alert the senses in the mouth.
Child is Biting His Arm/Sensory Input to Arm
● If your child doesn’t respond to the mouth techniques, maybe he needs the sensory input
in his arm. Try teaching him to squeeze his arm in that place or you can do it for him, use
weights for his arms, or carrying heavy baskets or bags.
Child is Scratching Himself/Needs Deep Pressure Sensory Input
● Try offering your child some deep pressure when he does this. That means, tight squeezes all over his body.
● You can also have him lay down and roll a big ball over his body
Watch out for responses from your child when you are trying different methods. Avoid trying
something he’s not comfortable with, Keep trying until you find one (or a few) that your child
seems to respond well to. You may have to help your child do these things or do them for him.
Teach Your Child How to Use These Strategies:
- If your child is able to do some of these strategies on his own, keep showing him how to
do it and then let him try by himself.
- Keep practicing until he can do it with just a verbal reminder.
- Then, every time he starts doing the prior self-stimulatory behavior, remind him to use
the new strategy.
- If it is a strategy that your child cannot do alone, teach him how to ask for the strategy to
be done for him.
For example, if the strategy is to go take a movement break where he gets rolled up like a
chapatti, have him verbally ask for a break. Or, have him give you the “break card”.
You can place these strategically in places he may need it.
If your child is not able to request these techniques at this time, that’s ok. Just keep doing
them for him but keep talking to your child about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. He may start to pick that up on his own and eventually ask for it. Keep working on these replacements and hopefully you will make the new behavior just as strong as the old behavior was.