A hallmark characteristic of individuals with autism, special needs, or sensory processing disorder is stimming. Believe it or not, just about everyone stims. If you bite your nails, chew your cheek, or frequently chew gum as a response to an overwhelming situation, you’ve stimmed before.
What is stimming?
Stimming refers to behaviors that people engage with to increase the amount of feedback they are receiving from their environment. In fact, “stim” is a derivative of the word “stimulation,” derived from the phrase “self-stimulation.” Behaviors that help provide more proprioceptive feedback can stimulate the senses, thus “stim.”
What do these behaviors look like?
For individuals on the autism spectrum, stimming doesn’t translate to small things like nail-biting, cheek chomping, and chewing gum. Rather, the behaviors liken to that of hand flapping, jumping, rocking, and yes, chewing on everything.
These behaviors can be relatively pronounced, frequent, and repetitive behaviors.
What’s going on in the brain?
Unfortunately, there are not a lot of readily accessible research regarding the neurology behind the need for stimming. There is a serious need for this type of research in this field, as it can provide immense insights into the whys of stimming.
However, according to The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Center for Autism Research,
These [stimming] motions affect the body’s vestibular sensory system (which helps with balance and orientation of the body). Other stims that do not affect the entire body, but which affect one or more senses, include hand flapping, squinting, staring at rotating objects (for example, a fan), stroking or rubbing surfaces of a certain texture, smelling objects, head banging, and squealing or making other vocalizations.
The reasons behind stimming differ for everyone, and further research could provide better insight into the neurological sources of stimming. For some, it may indicate that they are overwhelmed, and for others, it may be calming, still, for others, it helps them adapt to their environment. Quite simply, the reasons behind stimming are just as diverse as the individuals who stim.
Is something else going on?
There are sometimes medical causes for stimming. For example, if an individual is stimming by playing with or hitting their ears, it may very well be because of an ear infection. Before you address the stimming behavior in and of itself, it may be a good idea to get your kiddo a checkup at the doctor’s office.
Behaviorally, there may be several medical causes for stims. In an article from the Child Mind Institute, they outline the following stimming scenario and its causes.
[A] child Dr. Bauman treated chronically refused to go to bed. Every time she lay down she bounced up again and tried to get off the bed, fighting caregivers who tried to coax her to lie back down. It was a battle every night. But it turned out that she, too, had severe acid reflux that caused her distress when she was lying down. Again, treatment for the medical issue solved her bedtime behavior problem.
Identifying as to whether the self-stimulatory behavior your loved one with ASD is expressing is linked to medical explanations can be a crucial step in helping them.
What can help?
Again, the first thing to do is ensure that the stim is not a behavioral response to a medical problem. Once that’s ruled out, make sure your loved one’s daily environments, like their school, bedroom, and home, are comfortable for them. Eliminating possible environmental triggers might help reduce the stimming.
Make sure they shake their sillies out. Sometimes, stimming can come as a result of too much energy. If you want some good ideas about how to get rid of the wiggles indoors, click here.
If they have a constant need to stim in the classroom, look into active seating options for the kiddo. Children that need to stim in a classroom without disrupting the curriculum have benefited from active seating options, as they allow self-stimulation in a subtle way.
Please keep in mind that these explanations are not meant to explain the behavior of every individual who stims, but it is rather to provide insight into the potential reasons and remedies of stimming. While these tips may work for some, they may not work for all.