Recently someone asked me about stimming. More specifically, the person was asking if it’s ever appropriate to reduce stimming behavior for children/adults with autism. Stimming is defined as “behavior consisting of repetitive actions or movements of a type that may be displayed by people with developmental disorders, most typically autistic spectrum disorders; self-stimulation.”
My answer – it depends. Stimming is completely individual to the person doing it. I have had students stim by twirling pencils and students stim by repeatedly hitting their head into a wall. Do I intervene on the pencil twirling? Usually not. Do I intervene when someone is repeatedly banging their head into a wall? Absolutely.
Generally, before I intercede on stimming behavior I ask the following:
- What’s the function of the stimming?
- Is the stim easily redirectable?
- Is the stim hurting the student or caregiver?
- Is the stim affecting the student’s ability to socialize?
- Is the stim affecting the student’s ability to perform academically?
- Will interceding on the stim change the person’s life for the better or cause increased anxiety and behaviors?
Let’s go back to my pencil twirling example. The student would twirl his pencil constantly in the air. His teachers were asking for an intervention. When I started asking questions the student was still performing academically, the stim was easily redirected and he was actively choosing to stim in his free time. Interceding in this was not going to change his grades academically, I observed him in several social situations so it was not hurting him socially and I concluded that changing his stimming behavior was not going to drastically improve his overall life quality.
However, for my student who’s stimming was manifesting itself as self-injurious behavior it was definitely necessary to intervene. Repetitively banging his head into the wall was causing damage to his head, it was isolating him socially, his parents reported they were getting hurt when trying to intervene in the stim, and he wasn’t making progress academically. If we could get him to stop repetitively banging his head into the wall, it was going to drastically improve his overall life quality.
We all have repetitive things we do – watch the same show over and over, go to the same grocery store on the same corner, listen to the same radio station every day, sit in the same seat with the same people for meetings/trainings, tap our fingers, bite our nails, twirl our hair, etc. and no one intercedes on our repetitive daily habits. But if those daily habits become harmful (binge eating, drugs, alcohol) someone who cares about us may say something or intercede to keep us safe.
It’s the same concept. If the stimming (think hand flapping) is not causing social or academic issues and the student is thriving, I say let them stim.
More information on stimming can be found below: