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Embracing Neurodiversity: Understanding the various behaviours of an autistic child

Being different isn't good or bad, it isn't a qualifier. It just is. What embracing neurodiversity is all about.

Have you ever wondered why people on the spectrum do certain things that you may find different? For instance, why do they avoid eye contact? Why do people with autism “stim”? Let's find out what are some of the common behaviours and the causes behind it.

Firstly, “stimming” stands for self-stimulatory behavior. If this word sounds foreign to you, it’s actually not that difficult to understand. Stimming refers to behaviors one engages in to help calm oneself down. This often occurs during an overload, and is believed to be a self-preservative response to unfamiliar environmental stimuli. We will refer to them as the “output”, in other words “venting” their feelings somewhere.

It may also occur not just during an overload but also in a lack of input. When the environment is too bland or boring and a person does not receive the sensory input they need, they may start to create the “output” themselves, to counteract the absence of input. Just like how some people naturally start to hum or sing to themselves when the place is very quiet.

Such behaviors can be classified into subgroups such as verbal stims, visual stims, tactile or physical stims. Some of the more common ones include hand flapping, staring at things going in a cyclical motion, or banging of one’s hands/ head. More often than not, it is a result of sensory overload, because as we are aware, people on the spectrum may have heightened sensitivity in any of their 5 senses.

Just like how some people find it really satisfying to pop bubble wraps, especially when they are stressed out. Even neurotypicals engage in behaviours either habitually or triggered by anxiety, for example, skin picking or nail biting. These behaviors may be more socially acceptable just because its occurrence is so much higher, or because the act itself is subtle and not disruptive to the surroundings. Personally, I find myself pacing back and forth a lot when I have a big event the next day, and I’m sure most of us have our own coping mechanisms too!

Besides the type of stim, we also take into account the quantity or frequency of these stims. Although these are often triggered by frustration or anxiety, stimming could also occur as a result of an overload of any emotion, even positive ones! It may be a way to let it out when one feels intense excitement.

As for the avoidance of eye contact, a person on the spectrum may find it easier to focus on what you are saying when they are not looking at you in the eye. Eye contact may cause them to not be able to focus fully on the conversation because of the stress it causes, and looking away may just help them feel better. (Check out our article on the avoidance of eye contact) Of course, it is also something that can be worked on, just like how we overcome certain things through gradual exposure. I like to think of it this way-- we might not have been able to eat spicy food when we were young, but have slowly increased our tolerance upon gradual exposure. Everyone is biologically different and will start off at a different point.

People on the autism disorder spectrum (ASD) have mentioned that they can focus a lot better on a conversation when they are not looking at someone in the eye. A parallel can be drawn to why people choose to close their eyes when meditating-- it can remove distracting stimuli in the environment and help us to maintain our focus.

Other common stims include verbal stims such as saying the same word over and over, which may help soothe themselves since it is systematic and repetitive, compared to unfamiliar stimuli.

A child may cover his ears at random situations, because he finds something too loud for him. I remember being terrified of the flush on airplane toilets. Maybe a regular toilet sounds thrice as loud to the child than it does to us! Remember how perception is always subjective.

Rather than punishing the child’s coping mechanisms in hopes of reducing that behaviour, we can instead reward when he/she exercises restraint, in other words, praise them or even give a reinforcer when they are holding back from acting on their urges. We try not to completely restrict stimulatory behaviors at once because when one tries to hold everything in, they might end up with harmful behaviors such as hitting themselves out of frustration. Self-injurious behaviors are even more undesirable compared to behaviors that do not cause any harm to themselves.

Think of alternatives to replace these behaviors instead. Squeezing a stress ball or playdough, spinning a fidget spinner, watching a calm-down jar. These alternative behaviors would be a very good start before moving into increasing tolerance and extinguishing problem behaviors!

By understanding these behaviours, it is one step towards allowing ourselves to be aware and accepting that being different is not less. More constructive step and approaches can then be taken to aid the child in his growing and development along the way.

Written by Claudie

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