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 and keep them private enough that not many people even notice, while for others, it can dominate the day. Most people, though, fall somewhere in the middle.
Some kinds of repetition are fairly obvious. There’s echolalia, for example, which means someone repeats certain phrases, words or sounds over and over, not to express a meaning but because they simply enjoy the sound of them.
There’s staring at certain things for long periods of time – whirling fan blades or wheels are a common one with young children.
There’s ‘stereotypic movement behaviours’, also known as ‘stereotypies’, 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?
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.
Stimming is a self-created sensory reward loop: you use an ordinary moment, put it on repeat, and, basically, groove 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.
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. Pica can overlap with stimming.
Verbal. Echolalia, basically: repeating sounds, words or phrases without any obvious regard for their meaning.
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 your son or daughter finds pleasing.
What gets a child stimming?
Stimming is an area that’s still being researched, but the likely explanation is that there’s no one reason why someone stims. It can be a way of shaking up ‘hypo sensitive’ senses – that is, senses that need stronger input to feel things. (‘Hypo’ is the opposite of ‘hyper’; it means under-sensitive.)
We all need a certain amount of sensory stimulation to feel comfortable, and if it doesn’t happen in the ordinary run of things, stimming can be a way to get it. It’s also, according to the people who do it, just a nice experience, something that you do because it feels good, calming you down and helping you relax.
A better question is probably, ‘How is my child using stimming?’ The answer to that may vary from day to day and moment to moment. For instance: if you’re in a busy environment and your son or daughter is stressed, they might stim as a way of shutting things out.
If they’re tired at the end of a long day, they might stim to keep themselves going. If they’re anxious about something, they might stim to calm down. If they don’t want to do something, they might stim as a way of blocking out the demand.
Should I try to stop them stimming?
Stop stimming entirely? No. In most cases it is harmless – in fact, many adults with autism argue very strongly that it’s a positive thing in their lives that makes them happy and keeps their stress levels down, and that trying to keep a child from stimming entirely is cruel.
A better question is probably, ‘Are there circumstances in which I should interrupt/discourage stimming?’ The answer to that yes, sometimes there are.
There are stims that are what’s called ‘self-injurious’, such as banging one’s head on the floor: clearly that’s a problem that needs intervention. Dangerous stims should be stopped: it’s fine to relax, but if a kid is relaxing at risk of their health then of course you do what you can to protect them.
If a child is stimming obsessively, then they might be shutting out the world – which means they aren’t learning how to deal with it. All of us need some time when we can just switch off and calm down, but we can’t do it all day every day, and it’s not really in the interests of a child with autism to be allowed to do that either.
If they’re a non-stop stimmer this can get into the area of challenging behaviours, and you may need to consult a professional, but the aim should probably be to get stimming down to reasonable proportions rather than to cut it out entirely.
The stickiest area is this: how do you deal with the social effects?
There’s no denying that to someone unfamiliar with autism, stimming can look very odd. As a parent who lives with the stimmer, your best bet is to remind yourself that stimming is, at heart, not all that different from a lot of more common behaviours like fidgeting, crocheting, whittling, or listening to music with your eyes closed: stimming looks extreme, but the need it addresses pretty unremarkable.
How do you deal with other people, 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.
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 child with autism can have.
In cases like that, you may again need to get support from a professional or 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 son or daughter 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 son or daughter doing something over and over that’s going to create scars or bumps.
If this is what’s 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.