Autism affects a child's social development and communication. Children with autism often show behaviors that are repetitive, such as flapping their arms, or hitting the backs of their hands. These are called self-stimulatory, or ‘stimming,’ behaviors. The causes of stimming are still being researched, but some consensus exists that this behavior is calming to a child with autism, and helps him feel a sense of control over his environment. Children with autism tend to 'stim' when they are anxious, excited or otherwise experiencing intense emotions. The behavior can appear awkward and potentially dangerous to others.
Common Stimming Behaviors
According to a research study conducted at the Georgia Institute of Technology, there are a number of common stimming behaviors among children with autism. These include drumming the fingers repeatedly on a surface such as a desk or table; hand flapping, or repeatedly and sometimes violently shaking the hands; repeatedly striking the top of one hand with the other; pacing, or repeatedly walking a path; swaying or rocking back and forth while standing, spinning in circles when standing; and walking on the tips of the toes.
Characteristics of Stimming Behaviors
Stimming behaviors can vary, but they share common characteristics. If your child stims, you will find that he can stop when you tell him to, at least temporarily. Eventually, the behavior will return or be replaced by another behavior. Your child may stim when he is excited, anxious, bored or feels pressured by social demands. All infants engage in these behaviors, but toddlers, children and adults with autism often do not outgrow them. Some typically developing children may display these behaviors as well, but they are more easily stopped or redirected in these children. Children who have more severe autism spectrum disorders tend to stim more often and more intensely.
Stimming in Typically Developing People
Children and adults who are developing in a typical, non-autistic manner, often engage in self-stimulatory behaviors, but the specific behaviors tend to be more socially acceptable that those of children on the autism spectrum. For example, a typically developing teenager may habitually tap his pencil on the desk in school, or twirl a lock of his hair, especially if he is bored or nervous. These behaviors are so common and so harmless that they are often not noticed. Stimming behaviors by children on the autism spectrum are typically more obvious and can be alarming.
Because stimming is helpful to your child, by calming him and giving him a sense of control, you probably cannot eliminate it. Trying to reduce the stimming or replace the specific behavior is more effective. According to the May Institute, applied behavioral analysis, or ABA, may be effective in reducing stimming behaviors. Using this method, the child is rewarded for replacing the stimming behavior with another, more acceptable behavior. The social impact of stimming can be reduced by replacing hand flapping with lightly tapping the hand on the leg, for example. Since your child requires the effect that stimming provides, give him a better way to achieve that effect.