Stimming and Autism

Stimming and Autism: Everything You Need to Know


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    Stimming and Autism behaviors are the characteristic of an individual who has autism spectrum disorder. These behaviors entail a range of different traits and their combination that happens among people with autism spectrum disorder with a range of severity.

    The restrictive and repetitive behaviors are two of the traits of autistic people that are described in the fifth edition Diagnostic and statistical manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

    What is autism?

    Autism spectrum disorder is a complex and lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder that usually appears during early childhood and affects the social skills, communication skills, self-regulation, and maintenance of relationships of an individual.

    Peer-reviewed studies as per the autism research and diagnostic criteria describe the following characteristics typical to autistic children and adults.

    • Difficulty in social skills

    • Difficulty in communication skills

    • Restrictive and repetitive behaviors

    Stimming behaviors are the characteristic of restrictive and repetitive behaviors of an individual.

    What is stimming?

    Stimming or self-stimulation is a behavior that consists of repetitive movements or actions that are typically displayed by people with developmental disorders, most typically the people with autism spectrum disorders.

    Stimming is a kind of repetitive behavior that can possibly be a major part of life for many autistic children and young adults. It can be an important method of the regulation of emotions, which provides comfort and helps them enjoy while performing their day-to-day tasks.

    Stimming behaviour is characterized by an unusual body movement with repetitive movements that are used to manage emotions and reduce anxiety. Examples of stimming include the use of vocal sounds, tapping ears, and snapping fingers.

    Managing sensations:

    Stimming behavior is used by the individuals by some autistic children and teenagers as a coping mechanism to manage their emotions, anxiety, and overwhelming situations.

    If an autistic person (child or adult) is getting sensory overload, the self-stimulatory behavior can help that person as the method to cope with the overwhelming sensations.

    Changing the environment:

    It is observed that you can reduce stimming behaviors of the children by changing their environment. The new environment will help the child to get relaxed and manage stimming behaviors once they feel that they are in a safe environment.

    For more insight into stimming, watch the video by Howcast on Youtube by clicking the link below:

    What is Stimming? | Autism

    Does stimming mean autism?

    The simple answer is no. Stimming is characterized as a self-stimulatory behavior and is only linked with autism if it gets out of control. Stimming is a part of autism diagnosis but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are having the specific condition.

    Stimming behaviors are mostly associated with people who have developmental disorders, typically autistic children and adults. Stimming shows a pattern of repetitive behaviors like rocking back and forth, hand flapping, and the children with this condition need support from parents and peers in this condition

    While answering the question, it can be said that stimming does not always mean the presence of the underlying condition of autism spectrum disorders. Typical stimming behavior related to autism shows the display of these behaviors that are out of control and create problems.

    Link with other disorders:

    Stimming occurs in other developmental disorders other than autism, e.g. Rett Syndrome in girls, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia.

    What are stims in autism?

    Stims are the characteristic self-stimulatory behaviour usually involving repetitive behaviors like movements and sounds. Autism research indicates that an autistic child or an adult usually uses stimming as behavioral therapy to manage emotions.

    The stims in autistic people are different than the normal stims in a way that this behavior gets out of control and causes problems for autistic people. When these repetitive behaviors or stimming are creating disruption and problems for others, e.g. physical harm, severe hand biting, etc., these behaviors must be addressed to manage stimming.

    Many autistic people use stimming as a coping strategy in their daily tasks that help them to avoid sensory overload and they stop stimming whenever they feel relaxed.

    What are the causes of stimming?

    Although there is a lack of complete understanding of the process, there are some autism research-based findings that can help in comprehending the condition.

    One study says that stimming results in the arousal of the nervous system and results in the pleasure responses with the release of certain brain chemicals called beta-endorphins. As a result, this behavior results in the reduction of anxiety in a child or adult.

    As beta-endorphins release the chemicals of pleasure sensation called ‘dopamine’ in the Central Nervous System, it results in increasing pleasure sensations while reducing anxiety through stimming in a child and an adult.

    Watch the video by Dr. Mary Barbera (Certified Behavior Analyst) on YouTube for detailed and more insights into the causes of stimming.

    How is autistic stimming different?

    Engaging in self-stimulatory behaviors is not abnormal. Almost every one of us gets involved in some kind of repetitive behaviours. For example, biting your nails, or twirling hairs, in case you are nervous or getting bored, you are getting engaged in self-stimulatory behavior.

    Whether it is appropriate or not, it is easy for you to judge. Stimming normally can become your habit without you even noticing. Whereas people with autism stim in a different way.

    When it becomes inappropriate and irritating to others? For example, suppose you are drumming fingers on a desk or doing head-banging that can lead to self-harm and you are doing it for 10 minutes without thinking of the outside world. This does sound inappropriate. Right? Well, that is an example of stemming in autistic people.

    Is stimming obvious in autistic people?

    Stimming in autistic people refers to repetitive behaviors that are not culturally acceptable. For example, repetitive behaviors like nail-biting, and hair twirling are considered normal. Whereas other repetitive behaviors, for example, hand flapping, rocking back and forth, pacing, inappropriate noise, etc. are considered abnormal or a bad thing in a person.

    The repetitive behavior happening for long periods of time, that is out of control and is causing problems for others, becomes obvious in autistic people. In that case, it is advised to visit a mental health professional and seek treatment options.

    What are examples of autistic stimming?

    Some of the usual examples of repetitive behaviors regarding stimming in an autistic person include the following:

    • Snapping fingers

    • Hand flapping

    • Rocking back & forth

    • Listening to the same song in repetition

    • Repetition of vocal sounds, words, and phrases

    • Chewing or mouthing objects

    • Visual stimulatory behaviors, like looking sideways, watching an object spinning

    • Whistling

    • Jiggling your feet

    • Twirling hairs around your fingers

    For more insights into the types of stimming behaviors, watch this YouTube video.

    Control Options:

    There are no definitive methods available for the treatment of stimming in autistic people. Together, there is no need to stop stimming of a person if that is not dangerous or is not creating problems.

    Autistic people use stimming as a coping mechanism to manage their emotions and anxiety issues, which gives pleasure sensations to these people. Taking it away from them can have adverse effects on the person and it is usually not recommended to do.

    If it gets dangerous, there are some methods that can be used for the management of stims in a child. For example, using a stress ball instead of hand-flapping, managing the anxiety, changing the environment, etc.

    The treatment and control options must only be used in the following cases:

    • If it is causing social isolation

    • If it is disruptive at school

    • If it affects the learning ability

    • If it creates problems for other family members

    • If it is getting disastrous or damaging

    Some extreme methods were used to cater to extreme stimming behaviors like antipsychotic drugs, electric shocks, and slapping. But, clinicians argue that these methods must not be used if the stims are not causing any problems to other people.

    Wrapping Up Stimming and Autism

    Stimming is the characteristic of neurotypical and autistic people alike. Autistic stims are different in a way that the behaviors start getting out of control. In that case, the control options must be utilized to reduce the occurrence of the behaviors.

    Although autistic people use stimming as a coping mechanism which helps them to reduce anxiety and get feelings of pleasure by stimulation of the Central Nervous System. But, it must come to the notice if it creates problems or gets out of control.

    The proper attention of the parents and health professionals can help the autistic individuals to cater the behaviors better and get proper support in their struggle and challenges with autism spectrum disorder in general and stimming in particular.

    If you like this article about Stimming and Autism and would like to know more, please comment below.

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