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How to deal with stimming and what should I do when my child stims?

Learn the general guide on how to deal with stimming for your child on the spectrum

You may be surprised to hear this, but stimming does not necessarily need to be intervened with unless it creates problems in one’s daily living. Possible problems are, for example, when stimming is disruptive to people around them, when it causes social isolation, when it impedes one’s learning or when there is a possibility of harm to them.

If it is causing a problem, we have to step in to help them deal with it. Try not to view stims in a negative light-- something to bear in mind is that we should not punish the behavior or react negatively to it, because to the child, it’s just a natural instinct and they are not just doing it to be naughty! If you try to stop or control the stimming without addressing the underlying cause, the child would still find a way to let out their emotions, which means that the “output” will still find a way to be expressed, only in a different way.

First and foremost, we have to identify the cause of it. If stims are triggered by a certain environmental stimulus, then of course, try to help them by avoiding that anxiety-inducing trigger. For example, if you notice that your child is claustrophobic, avoiding crowded places would reduce the likelihood of them being overwhelmed or over-stimulated. Our first response would be to try reduce the stress levels for the child and also provide some calm.

However, If it is an environmental stimulus that cannot be avoided or would be beneficial for the child in the long run to be alright with it, our next step should be to teach them a replacement behavior that may be less disruptive or more socially acceptable. For example, if a child flaps his hands, give them a stress ball or a sensory toy to meet their need for tactile input. If a child likes to visually stim on lines and edges, you could provide them with puzzles that have edges that fit well and are at the same time educational. Rocking back and forth or spinning in circles could be replaced with activities that take up more energy like jumping on a trampoline, or even dancing. Do take note of when stimming is occurring most during a day— for instance, stimming could increase on extensively long bus rides or after eating certain types of food, if the child has food sensitivity.

Our goal when dealing with stimming is not to try control or stop the child, but rather, encourage them to exercise self-control. Exercising self-control involves them realising that a certain situation may seem overwhelming at that time, but their tolerance can be stronger than that. Additionally, I believe that overcoming a trigger once might just give them more certainty in dealing with similar triggers in the future. Never fail to praise or even reward when your child exhibits positive behavior such as sitting well and keeping quiet hands. Aiming to increase positive behavior is always better than punishing negative behavior, and is also more likely to maintain a good relationship with your child.

A child who has higher abilities with speech may stim verbally, something known as scripting. This refers to them repeating a catchy line they heard from a movie over and over again. This isn’t a bad thing, because that is how they learn and pick up words, and it shows that they are curious and interested in what’s happening around them. What we can do with verbal stims is to use that window of opportunity to teach them situation-appropriate words to say instead, thereby expanding their range of vocabulary with respect to the situation. It also helps if you do not give attention or respond to whatever they are saying if those are not appropriate, as you reacting to it might reinforce the behavior. Hence, being aware of when to respond and when not to is also important.

In summary, the general guide is as follows.

  • Step 1: To accurately identify and remove trigger.

  • Step 2: Teaching a replacement behaviour.

  • Step 3: Being aware when to respond.

With guidance and patience, children on the spectrum can definitely get better and better at managing stimulatory behaviors.

Written by Claudie.

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