We have heard of “stims” or stimulatory behaviors in children with autism. It is one of the signs doctors look for in making a diagnosis of autism. Stereotypic or stimulatory behaviors include rocking, flapping, making noises, picking, rocking, or spinning. In fact, we all have behaviors that are considered stimulatory. What do you do when you are in a stressful situation to calm yourself down? Some people twirl their hair, chew their fingernails, or tap their fingers on the table. So, everyone has some behavior that is calming. So, what is the difference between you and a person with autism? The ability to determine the “social acceptability,” duration, and timing of the behavior is the key. In a meeting when you are stressed it is not appropriate to flap your hands wildly, twirl around, or make clicking or humming noises. You have learned that biting your fingernails or bouncing your leg is an acceptable way to deal with stress. Chewing gum or ice is another acceptable way to self-soothe in public.
Most people with autism also have some form of sensory processing disorder. This means that everyday noises, sights, smells, movements, and actions may cause a stress, fear, or un-expected reaction. The noise of a dog bark may sound like nails on a chalkboard. So, that person may need to engage in a stimulatory behavior in order to calm himself down. The “stim” is a way of soothing in a stressful situation, controlling negative emotions, or dealing with anxiety, anger or fear. So, when someone is hyper(over) sensitive to everyday situations, sounds, sights, etc. he needs to engage in more stimulatory behaviors to help calm himself down. It’s like a cycle.
When do we “break” the cycle? Personally, I think that our society makes rules that are difficult to follow. Why is it more acceptable to chew on your fingernail than to flap your hands? At what point is it no longer cute for a child to spin around in public? Someone, somewhere is constantly judging your actions and it’s that mold that we have to fit into that causes more stress. My older son makes noises with his mouth and flaps and tightens his hands in private only. We have taught him that it is inappropriate to do so in public. When he is stressed in a situation, he knows to go into a bathroom or away from eyesight of other people and stim until he’s calmed down.
This is much more difficult to teach children who have more severe forms of autism. When they may rock and flap, they get the staredown from people. I think this is sad. With autism on the rise, maybe the ones who rock and flap will outnumber those who don’t! Can you imagine???? Everyone else flapping around staring at YOU because you are the one standing still chewing your gum and biting your fingernails………….thoughts?
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By- Cara Koscinki MOT, OTR/L
Author of The Pocket Occupational Therapist- a handbook for caregivers of children with special needs. Questions and answers most frequently asked to OTs with easy to understand answers and fun activities you can do with your child. Order anywhere books are sold. www.pocketot.com