Understanding Stimming in Autism: Causes, Management, and Parent-Led Interventions
Stimming, self-stimulatory behavior, automatic behavior, or stereotypy – different terms to describe behaviors commonly associated with autism, specifically the third tenet of an autism diagnosis: repetitive or restrictive behavior patterns. These behaviors are characterized by their lack of functional purpose, providing their own reinforcement, and sometimes being difficult to interrupt without upsetting the individual. While stimming is observed in many individuals, it is more prevalent in those with autism, often becoming a clear indicator of the condition.
Even neurotypical individuals engage in automatic behaviors, but at lower rates and without interference in daily tasks. For example, pen twiddling during deep thought or leg shaking when sitting with crossed legs are common behaviors. In autistic individuals, however, stimming might occur at high rates, impeding other more adaptive behaviors and necessitating intervention to address these "anti-learning behaviors."
The exact reason why autistic individuals engage in self-stimulatory behaviors isn't fully understood, and research has yet to pinpoint a definitive cause. However, it is a hallmark feature of autism, and its presence is necessary for an autism diagnosis. The level of interference with daily life can vary significantly from person to person.
Listening to autistic adults describe self-stimulatory behavior, one often hears that it helps to calm them in overstimulating environments or alleviate anxiety. From a behavioral perspective, self-stimulatory behavior serves an automatic function, providing its own reinforcement. A clear indicator of this is when a person engages in the behavior alone, with no other stimuli present.
One possible explanation for the prevalence of stimming in autism lies in the different eye gaze preferences and patterns observed in autistic infants compared to neurotypical infants. Autistic infants tend to gaze less at people's faces and spend less time looking at eyes and mouths, suggesting reduced sensitivity to social reinforcers. As a result, they might seek out tangible reinforcers, such as self-stimulatory behaviors, when social reinforcers aren't as effective.
Addressing self-stimulatory behavior involves teaching appropriate times and places for engaging in such behaviors. Strategies can include using visual cues or signals to indicate when stimming is not appropriate, and gradually introducing more functional and socially acceptable replacement behaviors. For example, teaching functional communication and conversation skills can reduce vocal stereotypy over time.
It's important to note that stimming behavior is unlikely to completely disappear since it is a natural aspect of being human. However, the goal should be to manage stimming in a way that minimizes interference with daily life and enhances an individual's success. If self-stimulatory behavior significantly impacts a child's functioning at home or school, parents should communicate with their child's Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program supervisor. Strategies such as teaching replacement behaviors (e.g., engaging in conversation or other vocal exchanges rather than engaging in vocal stereotypy), exploring matched stimulation activities (e.g., listening to music in headphones rather than humming to self in class) or using response interruption and redirection techniques to support the child's growth and development.
Stimming is a common trait observed in autism, and while its complete cessation might not be realistic, effective parent-led interventions behavioral strategies can help manage these behaviors, allowing individuals with autism to lead successful and fulfilling lives.