Autism: Ten ways to De-Stimulate those ‘Stims’

Written by Dr. Carosso
Children with autism invariably demonstrate what are called ‘self-stimulatory behaviors’. These are compulsive rituals and behaviors that can be quite challenging to squelch, including hand-flapping, rocking, jumping, squealing, pacing, echoing, and obsessing. To manage these behaviors, parents must first realize that we all ‘self-stimulate’ to one degree or another; hopefully we do so in more socially acceptable ways. Take a look around you, and you’ll see finger, pencil, and foot-tapping, pacing, biting fingernails, chewing on a pencil, rocking in a rocking chair…  These are outlets for our anxiety and energy. It’s also important to note that, equally often, these behaviors tend to be self-soothing as opposed to stimulating. So, with those considerations in mind; here’s what to do:

  1. Determine the underlying purpose of the behavior. For example, is your child rocking after an over-whelming day (self-soothing), or pacing when bored (self-stimulating).
  2. Find more appropriate or less noticeable avenues of expression. This would include finger or hand-flapping as opposed to flapping the entire arm; going for a brisk walk or jog rather than pacing, using a trampoline rather than jumping…
  3. Teach more appropriate coping strategies, including teaching mindful breathing (deep breathing), healthy self-talk, and communicating thoughts and feelings to problem-solve.
  4. Limit these ‘stimming’ behaviors to certain times of the day, and particular places.
  5. Keep your child occupied with more appropriate activities. Children who are unoccupied are more prone to self-stimulate.
  6. Play music that is soothing, enjoyable, or with a fast tempo, depending on whether bored or anxious.
  7. Anticipate what causes your child stress, and prepare ahead of time either by avoiding the stressor, or helping your child to better-cope (deep breathing; allowing for breaks from the stressful activity, picture schedule…).
  8. If your child is obsessive, for example, on the military or the tornado’s, such can be limited to a particular time or place. However, another approach is to permit your child free indulgence as long as another topic is broached, in conversation, in less than two minutes, or some similar arrangement. Of course, this would need to be rehearsed and practiced.
  9. Reinforce (praise, stickers, hugs…) appropriate behavior; do not punish self-stimulatory behavior.
  10. In the event that the self-stimulatory behavior is self-injurious, or unresponsive to the aforementioned strategies, it’s important to seek professional treatment. Call us toll-free at 1-877-899-6500.

I trust you’ll find these strategies to be effective. Please provide some feedback regarding what you’ve found to be helpful. Also, feel free to ask any questions and don’t forget to subscribe to regularly receive our posts the emails. Also, if you found this helpful, why not forward to a friend. God bless.

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Dr. John Carosso

Dr. Carosso has more than 30 years of experience as a licensed Child Clinical Psychologist and Certified School Psychologist working in private, inpatient, outpatient, residential, school, and home settings. He is Clinical Director of Community Psychiatric Centers (cpcwecare.com), a licensed Behavioral Health Outpatient Clinic, and operates both the Autism Center of Pittsburgh (autismcenterofpittsburgh.com) and the Dyslexia Diagnostic and Treatment Center (dyslexiatreaters.com).