STIMMING AND AUTISM
-Triveni Goswami Vernal
Registered Special Educator (A64010)
Stim refers to Self-Stimulatory Behaviour. It is very commonly seen in individuals on the Autism Spectrum. There are a large variety of stims available— they can be Visual stims, Vocal stims, Auditory stims, Tactile stims, Olfactory stims or stims related to particular movements of the body. Stims are usually a way to regulate a sensory experience by an individual, who may be overwhelmed (hence avoiding a sensory stimuli) or underwhelmed (and hence seeking out a sensory stimuli), by engaging in behaviour that is repetitive and stereotypical in nature.
We all stim, but it is not taken as a defining character trait for neurotypical individuals unlike individuals on the Autism Spectrum. Examples of stims seen in neurotypical individuals include flipping a pen when getting bored, drumming the fingers on a table, shaking one’s leg while sitting etc. They might be seen as an oddity but more or less, they are accepted as “normal” behaviour by others.
In individuals with Autism, the stim can take many forms, with respect to a particular sensory system-Visual, Auditory, Olfactory, Gustatory, Tactile, Proprioceptive or Vestibular.
Some common examples of various Stims are as follows:
1) Visual Stimming: Moving a finger/s very close to the eyes, watching the screen from very close quarters (such that the visual is pixellated), staring at objects (eg., spinning fans) and lights, flipping the switches of the light, eye tracking and looking at objects from the corner of the eyes, visually lining up all objects, arm flapping etc
2) Auditory Stimming: Covering or uncovering ears, finger snapping, vocalizing sounds, humming, clicking of the tongue, clapping hands, tapping on objects and ears, back masking (listening to sounds played in reverse) etc
3) Olfactory Stimming: Smelling scents, or sniffing people and objects.
4) Gustatory Stimming: Licking objects and surfaces, tasting objects while placing them in the mouth, chewing things (including fabric/clothes) etc.
5) Tactile Stimming: Touching particular kinds of surfaces (sticky surfaces, rough textures), touching people, skin rubbing, scratching, hand movements, closing and opening one’s fists etc
6) Proprioceptive and Vestibular Stimming: Rocking, Spinning, Jumping, Rolling, Pacing up and down etc.
WHY DOES AN INDIVIDUAL STIM?
Stimming should not be viewed in isolation. Instead, we need to understand why a child is stimming. Is it because the child is overwhelmed with a sensory stimulus and is trying to avoid it (such as a particular sound hence covering their ears) or is it because they are underwhelmed by a particular stimulus, and are hence seeking it out (such as the need to spin on their axis, is a way of activating their vestibular system)? This brings us to the next section on the Benefits of Stimming.
BENEFITS OF STIMMING:
Stimming has several benefits for the individual:
1) Self-Regulation: Stims help in providing self-regulation to an individual. According to the article, What you need to know about Stimming and Autism (https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/what-you-need-to-know-about-stimming-and-autism), “When someone with autism feels a sudden rush of feelings, that energy needs to go somewhere. Stimming provides an outlet for that energy. It allows the person to continue functioning within whatever space they are in.”
2) Helps Calm the Individual: Stimming can help calm the individual, reduce frustrations and lessen the stress of the individual.
3) Coping Mechanism: Often times, stimming allows the individual to cope with the stressors in the environment.
4) Express Emotions: Stims can also help an individual express their emotions—either when they are happy or when they are frustrated and angry about something.
5) Create Awareness about their bodies.
SO, WHAT CAN PARENTS OR CAREGIVERS DO WHEN A CHILD STIMS?
As a parent of a child with Autism, who has had various stims since his diagnosis, one of the most important points would be to try and understand why the child stims and how one can help the child with the stim. And we must also remember that stims can come and go. Individuals can outgrow a particular form of a stim and move on to another form, later. In the initial years, Kabir would often spin on his own axis, without feeling dizzy at all. If it was felt that he was in a situation (like when we were in a café/restaurant), and he couldn’t spin on his axis, an alternative would be provided to him…like a spinning top.
1) Acknowledge the child’s need to Stim: Try and understand why the child needs to stim. If you think the stim is getting in the way of his regular work schedule, allocate a fixed time period during the day for him to Stim without any restrictions. Just acknowledging that you understand that the child needs to channelize his/her energy through a stim, can have a huge impact on his/her mental health.
2) Provide alternatives to the child: It might not be feasible for the child to stim the way he/she wants to stim, at all the times. As a parent you need to provide alternatives that meet the child’s underlying sensory need.
3) Ensure the child’s Safety while stimming.
4) Carry alternatives for their Stims, while travelling.
WHEN SHOULD THE PARENT OR CAREGIVER INTERVENE DURING STIMMING?
If it is found that the child is engaging in Self-harming behaviour (eg., head banging) or causing harm to others (biting/scratching/hitting etc), or the child is in an Unsafe situation, while stimming, the parent or caregiver must exercise caution and intervene immediately to ensure that the stimming behaviour is stopped and a safer alternative can be provided or suggested by them.
In conclusion, it is fair to say that Stimming is an essential part of an individual’s life on the Autism spectrum and the least we can do, is to acknowledge the stim, understand the purpose of the stim and help the individual, channelize their sensory needs in a safe manner.
Author Triveni Goswami Vernal
Triveni Goswami Vernal is an Autism advocate, registered Special Educator (CRR A64010) and an Independent Researcher. Her areas of interest include Autism, Disability Rights, Gender, Art and Northeast studies. She is a mum to an 11 year old on the Autism Spectrum.
Creative representation for this blog is done by our extremely talented CreativeSaathi associate Kabir Vernal