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Visual Stimming: What can we do about it?

The solution to reduce the stimming is to offer a replacement that is more alluring than the stim.

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

  • Hand-flapping

  • 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

  1. Spinning objects

  2. Light toys

  3. Videos

2) Explore a multi-sensory approach when practicing skills like writing

  1. Write on different textured surfaces (whiteboard, sandpaper, carpet, chalkboard)

  2. Writing with fingers in different mediums (sand, water, shaving cream, paint)

3) Provide visual aid to facilitate copying from book or board

  1. Use a ruler to mark when reading

  2. 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

  1. Seat child away from doors, windows and colourful displays

  2. Keep lights dimmed and use natural light when possible

  3. Limit the amount of visual materials hanging from walls and ceilings. Reduce clutter.

2) Allow children to wear lightly tinted sunglasses if necessary

  1. Be mindful of areas or reflective surfaces which may concentrate or magnify light sources

  2. Prepare child when entering environment with different/strong lightings

3) Do not force or demand child to make eye contact

  1. Your child may be listening and paying attention without making eye contact – it might even enhance their ability to process verbal information

  2. 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.


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2 comentários

Dawn Burnett Lambert
Dawn Burnett Lambert
09 de jun. de 2021

We have long suspected my son may be somewhere on the spectrum, though perhaps mild. He seems to have stimming behaviors that come and go for weeks or months at a time - hand flapping, side glancing, repetitive movements, etc. Recently he has developed a habit of looking up, often while putting his head down. Like someone might do if they were trying to see their own eyebrows or forehead. Is this is form of visual stimming? Has anyone else experienced this?

09 de jun. de 2021
Respondendo a

There is a possibility it could be a visual stimming, it has very hard for us to provide a conclusive statement without providing any assessment on your child. And at the same time, there could also be several possibilities of trigger for your child to exhibit this behaviour.

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