10 Strategies To Stop An Autistic Child From Stimming

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Medically reviewed by Kimberly Langdon, MD

How to Stop An Autistic Child From Stimming

Do you bite your fingernails when you are nervous or drum your fingers on the desk while you think? The fact is – everyone stims. Stimming is a repetitive behavior that most of us occasionally display without even being aware of it.

Stimming is a self-stimulating behavior typically found in those with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A child with autism may use this behavior as a soothing mechanism to help them cope with overwhelming situations that cause sensory overload. 

Everyone stims, but stimming in autistic children can sometimes spiral out of control and severely affect daily life. Finding ways to help your child manage stimming effectively rather than to control it entirely is the key. 

How to Stop An Autistic Child From Stimming

ASD affects 1 in 150 children in the U.S. alone. For such children with autism, repetitive behaviors are a significant part of everyday life. Stimming acts as an important way to regulate their emotions and provide a source of comfort that enables them to continue with their day.

While it can sometimes be distracting, stimming is typically harmless but can change and develop over time. When stimming interferes with daily life, prevents a child from learning at school, or causes harm to the child or others – it may be time to intervene. 

If your child is stimming, curbing it altogether may seem like the ideal solution, but in reality, this only replaces it with another stim – one that may be less favorable to the one before. 

Helping your child manage stimming is by far a better way of assessing the behavior and include the following strategies:

  1. Identify trigger behaviors to stimming
  2. Lower stress and anxiety in your child
  3. Create a calm environment
  4. Set a routine for daily activities
  5. Increase physical activity
  6. Redirect and encourage acceptable behaviors 
  7. Gain support from teachers and carers
  8. Work with therapists
  9. Rule out other medical conditions for stimming 
  10. Be patient and consistent

Reducing Stress and Anxiety

Stress and anxiety play a significant role in the lives of autistic children. Slight increases in daily stresses can intensify stimming tremendously in those with autism. 

Create a Calm Environment

Stimming is a self-comforting motion triggered by environmental factors. Common triggers include loud noises, bright lights and strong scents. Strong emotions such as anger, fear or excitement can also trigger stimming in some autistic children. 

When your child starts to stim, reduce your child’s stress by redirecting your child’s attention to something they enjoy talking about or removing them from the situation completely. 

Promote Routine and Familiarity

Those with autism often describe their world as overwhelming and unpredictable; having a regular daily routine helps relieve stress and uncertainty. 

Your child will manage anxiety better if they know what to expect and offers them a sign of comfort. Create the same routines for each activity, such as preparing the same meals and traveling via the same route to school. 

Prepare Your Child

Unfortunately, unpredictability is the nature of our world and can hit those with autism hard, causing more stress and anxiety. Sometimes unexpected situations occur, such as a sudden road diversion or a visit to the doctor. 

You can help your child lower stress and improve their resilience to change by, for example, visiting the doctor’s clinic beforehand so your child can be familiar with the environment. If your child fears new activities, showing them a video of children smiling participating in the activity may relieve their anxiety. 

When all else fails, a backup plan such as storybooks or your child’s favorite toy can help relieve stress and stimming through unexpected circumstances. 

Increase Physical activity

Studies show vigorous exercise releases endorphins that may reduce stimming in autistic children. Physical exercise also gives your child something fun to focus on, redirecting them from stimming. 

Typical physical stimming behaviors of autistic children include repeatedly jumping up and down and arm-flapping. Incorporating a quick physical stimming session may release built-up stress and can curb the urge for these behaviors at a later, less appropriate time. 

Alter Stimming Behaviors

For children with autism, stimming is ultimately a soothing and stress-regulating behavior and shouldn’t be eliminated. Instead, look for ways to incorporate subtle stimming into their daily life.

Allow Acceptable Behaviors

It can be exhausting for those with autism to keep their impulses hidden all day long. Give your child scheduled times throughout the day to unwind alone, allowing free body movement and to be who they are without judgement from others. 

Deviate Unacceptable Behaviors 

Some stimming behaviors of autistic children can affect others, such as making loud grunting noises or repeatedly spinning on the spot. Remember, the act of stimming releases built-up stress in your child, so the aim is to relieve anxiety in ways that do not disrupt others.

Try to redirect your child’s attention and never punish your child for bad stim behavior. Doing this will only replace the behavior with another one, possibly even more unfavorable. 

Work With Others

Stimming plays a vital role in the lives of autistic children, and to an extent, it is simply a part of who they are. Parents and other family members, teachers and carers can play a crucial role in supporting autistic children who stim. 

If your child receives a complaint from school or another parent regarding their stimming behavior, try talking to them and help them understand your child’s condition. Acceptance comes only after acknowledging and understanding your child’s condition and may help lower judgment on your child. 

Seek Medical Help

Stimming is typically harmless, although some behaviors may warrant professional attention. Aggressive stimming such as biting, hitting or any other conduct that causes harm to the child or others may require intervention.

Some children with autism may repeatedly bang their head or parts of their body to reduce overall pain. Studies suggest this releases endorphins in the body, which causes a numbing pleasure sensation

In these cases, seeking professional help is best. 

Therapy involves:

  • Working with your child to determine when stimming begins.
  • Identifying and modifying triggers.
  • Offering alternative, more acceptable stim suggestions for your child. 

Early professional intervention for aggressive stims may help your child live a more socially acceptable life and prevent existing stims from spiralling out of control.

Eliminate Other Problems

Children with autism can sometimes have trouble expressing themselves or communicating their needs. Sometimes stimming may result from pain or effects caused by other medical conditions in your child’s body.

Identify if there are other reasons for your child to stim, such as ear infections or pain and irritability from different parts of the body. Those with autism can typically suffer from gastrointestinal problems, so rule them out before changing your child’s stimming behaviors.

Stimming In Autism

It is essential to understand that stimming acts as a soothing or comforting self-regulating mechanism, similar to thumb-sucking in infants. Studies show children with autism have more sensory symptoms resulting in too much sensory input from anything such as a cold room to loud noises. 

When overstimulated, autistic children may skim to help block out excess sensory input. In contrast, they may also stim when they are bored to provide extra sensory information. 

Your child may stim to manage both their positive and negative emotions. Joyous occasions may warrant continuous jumping and arm-flapping motions, while anger and frustration may intensify stims significantly. 

Common Stimming Behaviors

Stimming behaviors typical of those with autism include:

  • Physical – jumping, rocking, swinging, spinning, tiptoeing
  • Visual – constant blinking, staring at lights or spinning objects
  • Auditory – repeating sounds, words or phrases.
  • Taste/smell – licking or chewing inedible objects, general sniffing

Conclusion

  • While everyone stims – stimming can severely affect the daily lives of those with autism.
  • Stimming is a repetitive self-stimulating behavior typical in autistic children as a self-soothing coping measure.
  • Stimming behaviors come and go as time passes but are typically worse during times of stress and anxiety.
  • You should leave stimming behaviors alone unless it severely affects daily life, disrupts learning at school or causes harm to your child or others. 
  • Reduce stimming behaviors by creating familiar routines to reduce stress and anxiety, encourage acceptable behaviors, and redirect unacceptable ones.
  • On occasions, other medical conditions may cause autistic children to stim.
  • Aggressive stimming that can potentially harm the child of others may warrant medical help. 
  • Do not try to eliminate stimming entirely as this only leads to replacement with a new stim – possibly less favorable than the one before.

+ 10 sources

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Written by:

Christina Cheung

Medically reviewed by:

Christina Cheung holds a Master’s of Pharmacy from the University of Bath (UK) and is a freelance writer specializing in medicine and science. With over a decade of experience as a community and hospital pharmacist both in the UK and abroad, she has dealt first-hand with patients facing medical difficulties and decisions. She now writes to promote medical health and wellness to better the community. Christina also has a published science blog with a passion for inspiring and encouraging medicine and science for kids and students. While not writing, she can be found strolling through the country parks with her family and pet dog.

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