Repetitive behaviours and stimming.
If you read a technical definition of autism, you’re likely to come across the phrase ‘repetitive behaviours’ somewhere in the mix.
On the face of it, that doesn’t sound like very much – but actually, it can be a major part of life. Some people with autism have only a few of these behaviours, and keep them private enough that not many people even notice, while for others, it can dominate their day. Most Autistic people, though, fall somewhere in the middle.
There’s ‘stereotypic movement behaviours’, also known as ‘stereotypes’, which means repetitive physical movements such as jumping, finger-flicking or eye-rolling. Some people with autism also have Tourette’s syndrome, which means a lot of physical and verbal tics.
When you see a person with autism doing such things, you’re likely to hear someone say that they’re ‘stimming’. This, once you understand it, is an incredibly useful concept when it comes to autism – so what does it mean?
Stimming is short for ‘self-stimulatory behaviour’. This means, technically, that somebody is doing something to give themselves sensory input – but what does that mean and is it harmful?
Think of it this way: when most people say something, it’s usually to communicate. When they do something, it’s usually to have an effect on the world or themselves. When they look at something, it’s usually because they’re getting information from it.
You do something because you want to achieve a consequence. When someone is stimming, they’re speaking, moving or gazing purely to enjoy the sensation it creates, and the state of mind that sensation produces. It is a self-created sensory reward loop: using an ordinary moment, putting it on repeat, and, basically, grooving on it.
A person with autism can stim on almost anything; it just needs to be something that appeals to them. However, common areas include:
Visual. Staring at lights; doing things to make the vision flicker such as repetitive blinking or shaking fingers in front of the eyes; staring at spinning objects like fan blades.
Auditory. Listening to the same song or noise, for instance rewinding to hear the same few notes over and over. Making vocal sounds, tapping ears, snapping fingers etc.
Tactile. Rubbing the skin with hands or with another object, scratching.
Taste/smell. Sniffing objects or people; licking or chewing on things, often things that aren’t edible.
Verbal. Known as echolalia – basically it’s repeating sounds, words or phrases without any obvious regard for their meaning. Just liking the way they sound.
Proprioception. This means the body’s ability to feel where it is and what it’s doing; it’s often a sensation that autism can dull. Hence, a lot of stimming involves things like rocking, swinging, jumping, pacing, running, tiptoeing or spinning – all of which give the body’s sense of balance and position a boost.
People stimming can also go through strange-looking physical movements, for instance making faces, stamping, assuming postures that look contorted and uncomfortable from the outside, shaking the head or shrugging the shoulders, and flapping – that is, rapidly shaking or pumping the arms.
All in all, stimming can look very peculiar to people who don’t understand it. Strangers can find it frightening, but in fact the explanation for it is really quite simple: stimming is doing something repetitive for the sensation it creates rather than the result it produces – and that sensation is one that the person doing it finds pleasing.
How do you deal with other people who notice, though?
When it comes to friends and family, explaining and hoping they’ll be understanding is probably your best bet.
Strangers on the street can be another issue; you may want to have some cards to hand out if people bother you about it, but at least passers-by go out of your life relatively quickly. Just ignore them.
Probably the biggest worry is that odd-looking behaviours can attract bullying, and stimming is often among the most odd-looking and the most conspicuous behaviours a person with autism can have.
In cases like that, you may again need to get support from a professional or, if it’s your child, school staff. If it’s possible, the best solution might be to help your son or daughter understand that stimming is a private activity and might be better kept at home rather than at school. Whether they have the verbal and social understanding to take this on board is going to vary from individual to individual, of course, as will how much control they have over their stimming behaviours.
Of course, the ideal thing would be if all their schoolmates were open-minded and tolerant kids, who wouldn’t bully someone for being different. If your child is in a mainstream setting, consider speaking to the school and ask them if they could have classes or talks to help the other children understand autism.
In most cases, though, the rule with stimming should be that as long as it’s not causing problems, you should just let them enjoy it – and ‘looking weird’ really isn’t a problem unless people choose to make it one.
What if my child Is harming themselves?
There are, unfortunately, dangerous stims. Some children slap or punch themselves, knock their heads on the floor or window, bite themselves until they draw blood or, eventually, cause callouses or deformities.
Children with autism often have a high pain threshold and to them, these behaviours don’t always ‘hurt’: a child stimming like this may be doing what they can to get even just a moderate degree of sensation.
Knowing that, though, doesn’t mean it isn’t terrifying to see your child doing something over and over that’s going to create scars or bumps.
If this is happening to you, you need to call in professional help. This can include occupational therapists, clinical psychologists or behavioural specialists: people who can identify the specific root causes and try to redirect the behaviour into something less violent.
While you’re trying to resolve this problem – which really has to be done – don’t neglect your own mental health. Get help for your child, and get help for yourself if you can.