For those who don't know, stimming (short for self-stimulation) is a repetitive behavior that absorbs a child's attention. These behaviors are extremely diverse, ranging from self-injurious head banging, to staring at fans, to reciting movie lines over and over, to playing with trains at eye level for hours on end. All sorts of odd behaviors crop up in children on the autism spectrum, some more alarming than others.
Stimming behaviors may rise from the person's need to distract him/herself from unpleasant things in the environment or sensory inputs he/she can't handle. Think of Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man: he would start reciting the "Who's on First" skit whenever things got stressful for him. Lots of children on the high-functioning end of the spectrum can learn to control their stims while at school, but when they come home, they need to decompress with some stimming. Stimming may also be an obsessive-compulsive behavior...something the brain simply demands the person do for no good reason.
Because so little is understood about WHY people with autism stim, so-called experts in the autism community disagree on what to do about stimming. Obviously, self-injurious stimming (running hands under scalding water, head banging, picking) must be extinguished for safety and health, but what about more benign stimming? Should all stim behaviors be extinguished? Should stimming be allowed as a reward for good work? How forcefully should stimming be extinguished? It's confusing and stressful for parents to have conflicting advice. But without knowing the "why" of stimming, how can experts confidently give good advice? I'm baffled.
Jack has recently been singing a lot at school when he doesn't want to work. His repertoire of songs has grown over the years...it's not just Blue's Clues anymore. But it's not appropriate at all in a classroom environment or on the bus to break out in random songs. Kids are going to pick on him, plus he's distracting to others.
At home, the stimming has changed a bit. He sings randomly and blurts out movie lines at the dinner table, for instance. This morning, however, he was eating an apple fritter (a fall treat for our family), and said, "This is the life!" It's a movie line, but used totally appropriately and intentionally.
He also makes annoying repetitive noises while playing with his cars and trains. But the noises he makes are becoming more varied and unpredictable, more like normal little boy noises, and often, they are JUST LIKE regular little boy behavior, especially when he includes his brother in his play, which happens more and more. This reminds me the line between abnormal and perfectly normal behavior can be quite hard to draw.
It also gives me hope that Jack's overall stimming is heading in the right direction.
Jack's noises are hardly difficult to deal with. Annoying, yes. But not difficult. Jack's diagnosis, PDD-NOS, is a form of autism that generally shows less perseverative behaviors than full-blown autism, which can involve downright alarming stims. In our case, we chose not to deal harshly or absolutely with extinguishing stims. We allow Jack to have a "decompression" time when he gets off the bus because he needs it. Trying to engage him in conversation is difficult at the best of times, and downright impossible when he gets off the bus.
I have no idea if this is the right thing to do, but it feels right to us. For some reason, Jack needs these behaviors, and if we can work on extinguishing them in certain situations (I discourage inappropriate movie lines in public and at the dinner table, for instance), we can hopefully move him in the right direction without being cruel. We ALL do things to calm ourselves and deal with stress; we usually do them in private and appropriately, or we engage in public activities (yoga class, dining out with friends) that serve the same purpose.
Guiding Jack toward more appropriate stimming has been slow, but we're making progress. Perhaps if we'd used ABA training, he would have made progress faster. But is faster better with benign stims? I simply don't know.
What stims do you see in your child/patients/students and how do you deal with them?