Does your child with autism look out of the sides of their eyes, wiggle their fingers in front of themselves, or seem fascinated by spinning items? If so, your child might be “visually stimming”!
What is visual stimming?
Visual stimming is one of the self-stimulatory behaviours that children with autism often present with.
It may include repetitive behaviours such as:
Staring or gazing at objects, such as ceiling fans or lights
Repetitive blinking or turning lights on and off
Moving fingers in front of the eyes
Eye tracking or peering from the corners of the eyes
Object placement, such as lining up objects
Why do they stim?
It is not easy to pinpoint or determine the reason for stimming. However, it is important to note these behaviours have been thought to be a form of coping mechanism that serves a variety of purposes.
According to Healthline (2019), a child may stim because he/she is trying to:
Stimulate the senses or decrease sensory overload
Adapt to an unfamiliar environment
Reduce anxiety and calm themselves
Express frustration, especially if they have trouble communicating effectively
Avoid certain activities or expectations
What can we do about it?
In order to understand your child’s stimming behaviour, Lindsey Biel (2009) provided a useful framework of questions to ask yourself:
In what type of situations and under what circumstances does my child stim?
Could it be that they are tired/hungry/anxious/bored/frustrated?
Are there too many unexpected changes or transitions?
Is the behaviour worse at a certain place or with certain people?
What does my child get out of this behaviour?
Are they doing it because they need attention or are distressed?
What are they trying to tell me?
Is it a way to block out unpleasant sensations?
Does this help them to calm down or release pent-up energy?
Is there an underlying medical issue?
This is important to consider especially when the behaviour is new.
Visual stims could be a way to self-soothe eyes that are strained due to undiagnosed visual acuity or convergence problems
What would help?
Do you need to reduce the sensory demands of the situation? (eg. Taking a break, dim the lights)
Would providing a distraction work?
Do they need to engage in one of their sensory diet activities?
Being able to pinpoint the root reason why your child is engaging in this behaviour will help you find suitable strategies to apply to the situation.
Tips to manage visual stimming
Behaviour: Child is under-responsive
Children who are under-responsive to visual input may seek out increased amounts of visual stimulation to alert the brain. Hence you may try to:
1) Provide access to visual stimulation at intervals after they complete their work
2) Explore a multi-sensory approach when practicing skills like writing
Write on different textured surfaces (whiteboard, sandpaper, carpet, chalkboard)
Writing with fingers in different mediums (sand, water, shaving cream, paint)
3) Provide visual aid to facilitate copying from book or board
Use a ruler to mark when reading
Use fingers to help with spaces between words
These will help the child to maintain an adequate level of alertness and attention throughout the day.
Behaviour: Child is over-responsive
Children who are over-responsive to visual input may process lighting as much brighter. They may also be more sensitive to light and hence would want to escape to a darker place. More often than not, they have difficulty filtering out varying visual stimulation in the room which he/she may feel overwhelmed and highly anxious. Hence you may try to:
1) Reduce visual distraction
Seat child away from doors, windows and colourful displays
Keep lights dimmed and use natural light when possible
Limit the amount of visual materials hanging from walls and ceilings. Reduce clutter.
2) Allow children to wear lightly tinted sunglasses if necessary
Be mindful of areas or reflective surfaces which may concentrate or magnify light sources
Prepare child when entering environment with different/strong lightings
3) Do not force or demand child to make eye contact
Your child may be listening and paying attention without making eye contact – it might even enhance their ability to process verbal information
Teach child to look near the eyes instead of directly into the eyes
Conclusion – Provide a more alluring replacement behaviour
Ultimately, the overall principle is to provide the child an experience that produces similar feel-good sensations that self-stimulatory activity gives them but go one step up on the developmental ladder of regulation, engagement and interaction. The solution to reduce the stimming is to offer a replacement that is more alluring than the stim! If your child stops stimming when you ask, do reward him/her!
By addressing the sensory issues, family members and therapists can make it easier for the child to learn, socialise and participate in activities.
Written by Jermaine.