Stimming and self-stimulation behaviors come in all shapes and sizes. Many parents have questions about it, such as: Is stimming normal? How do you stop stimming? The short answer is yes, stiming is normal, and you do not need to stop your child from stimming; you only need to eliminate dangerous and disruptive stims.
What is Stimming?
The Child Mind Institute defines stimming, also known as “Stereotypy” to neurologists, as stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech. Stimming becomes a symptom of autism when it becomes dangerous to oneself or others, disruptive to learning for oneself or others, and impedes functional language, leisure, or social skills.
Can you stim without Autism?
This is the golden question. Yes, everyone stims. Bored in a lecture and starting to doodle on your note page or twirl your hair? That is considered non-autistic stimming. Playing and practicing basketball by repetitively aiming the ball to the hoop, also stimming. Stimming is something we do when we are bored, distracted, or in leisure time to ‘keep our neurons firing’.
Stimming in Autism
When looking at stimming and autism, you might see rocking, scripting, flapping, etc. In dangerous cases, you might even see head banging. The goal of stopping or controlling stims is to eliminate dangerous or problem behavior, like self injurious stims or scripting loudly during whole class learning. Stimming can be okay in autism, especially if it’s a safe and enjoyable thing for the child to do. The key is to make it functional!
6 Steps to Reduce Stimming
- Assess: An FBA or written data to track the occurrence of stims.
- Plan: Make a plan and program for reducing stims using data.
- Teach: Teach language, leisure, and social skills to keep the child engaged.
- Allow Stimming: Let the child have independent time to stim in a safe appropriate way.
- Use the Stims: Use a child’s preferred stims to teach and pair functional tasks.
- Embed Yourself: Participate and prompt during stimming to create learning moments
Stimming that is disruptive or dangerous needs to stop, but that doesn’t go for all stims. According to raisingchildren.net, some autistic individuals report that stimming helps them manage emotions and overwhelming situations. It’s important that we help and support these positive skills with the tips and resources I’ve provided.
- What is stimming?
- What does stimming look like with autism?
- Do non-autistic individuals stim?
- How to know when stimming is a problem.
- 6 Steps to Reduce Stimming.
- Why do people stim?
Mentioned in this episode:
- What is Stimming? – Dr. Mary Barbera
- Reducing Vocal Stimming and Scripting in Children with Autism – Dr. Mary Barbera
- Autism and Stimming – Child Mind Institute
- Stimming: autistic children and teenagers
- Workshops – Dr. Mary Barbera
- 3 Steps to Turning Autism around
- Courses – Dr. Mary Barbera
- Assessment App – Dr. Mary Barbera
- [email protected]
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Transcript for Podcast Episode: 230
Rebroadcast: Autism and Stimming: What is a Stim?
Hosted by: Mary Barbera
Mary: You’re listening to the Turn Autism Around podcast episode number 230. Today, We’re doing a rebroadcast of a very important topic and question We get all the time: What is a Stim? We are talking about self stimulatory behavior when it’s a happy stim, when it can be a problem behavior. How to increase language and leisure activities and social skills so that stimming that is a problem that is causing injury or interrupts a lot of learning for the student and others when it becomes a problem what to do about it. We also have a free download at MaryBarbera.com/stimming. When you do want to reduce stims but we all stim it’s not usually a problem. And today we are talking all about stimming. So let’s get to this really important topic of stimming.
Intro: Welcome to the Turn Autism Around podcast For both parents and professionals in the autism world who want to turn things around, be less stressed and lead happier lives. And now your host, Autism mom behavior analyst and bestselling author, Dr. Mary Barbera.
What is Stimming?
Mary: Hi, I’m Dr. Mary Barbera. Welcome back to another episode of The Turn Autism Around podcast. I am thrilled that you’re here, and if you have been listening to my podcast since January of 2019 when I started, I would love it if you would leave me a review. Five star rating would be awesome. So let me know on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening to this podcast, what you think of the show. If you liked a certain show, I’d love to hear more about it. And if you have ideas for other episodes or people I can interview parents or professionals with, you can always email me at [email protected] So today we are talking all about stimming. And first I want to say that we all stim. So if you are in a lecture and it’s either really boring or really over your head, you are going to engage in some type of self-stimulatory behavior most likely. You might start doodling with the pencil, you might scroll through your phone, through Facebook, you might play with your hair. And these behaviors are all self stimulatory behavior. And when we are not engaged at the right level with the right level of reinforcement, we tend to drift off. Neither start thinking about things, start thinking about your vacation coming up, or start physically stimming to, in layman’s terms, kind of keep our neurons firing. So self-stimming behavior is normal. In fact, all of our leisure activities, like throwing a basketball into a net, trying to get it into the net and practicing for 15 minutes or one hour and the reinforcement is actually getting the ball in the net. But we are constantly throwing the ball, trying to get it in the net as a self-stimulatory behavior that is reinforced when the ball goes in the net. The feeling that I did it. Same with playing a musical instrument like a violin. So you are practicing and you are trying to get the note just to sound correct. So that is a self-stimulatory behavior as well. Watching TV, like I said, thinking about things in your mind, those are all ways to keep our mind busy when we’re not actively engaged in doing something that is meaningful and with the right level of reinforcement. So if stimming is so normal, why are we talking about reducing it? And even some adults with high functioning autism, they don’t think that we should be trying to reduce stimming at all. But I do think that for children with autism, many times the self-stimulatory behavior is not only disruptive to their own learning, and the learning of others also can be dangerous. And if stimming is happening, a lot of learning probably isn’t. So that’s why I do think that we need to talk about it and we need to know that stimming is a part of life. And we’re not talking about stopping all stimming. We’re talking about getting the stimming to be as functional and age appropriate as possible. So if you have a child who is rocking, for instance, and moaning, that is a very kind of primitive stim behavior, whereas say, that child is three years old. If that child were watching YouTube and stimming on YouTube, watching a character come from behind the door and repeating that action, that’s self stimulatory behavior. If you walked into a house and saw a youngster rocking and humming versus watching YouTube, the three year old who is watching YouTube, it would look more functional. It would look more typical. And so we’re just talking about trying to reduce or eliminate any self-stimulatory behaviors that are dangerous and then trying to get the child to replace those self-stimulatory behaviors with engaging functional language, social skills, leisure skills. So children with autism tend to Stim. More than typically developing kids. Probably because they have poor language, poor social skills, poor leisure skills and stim behavior could occur every day, all day long. A lot of the day. Most of the day. And as I said, the learning can definitely be disruptive not only for themselves but for others around them. So some self-stimulatory behaviors are, like I said, dangerous. So I have a two year old, let’s call him Anthony. And Anthony was banging. He was only two. He was just diagnosed when I got put on the case and he was banging his head on hard and soft surfaces so much that Anthony got a lesion open wound on the back of his head. So I was called in as an early intervention provider because I was a behavior analyst, because obviously having an open wound on your head from head banging is in need of some emergency assessment and treatment. And so when I observed him, obviously, I wasn’t going to be able to take really good baseline data, but I’m trying to get a feel for when he bangs, how much he bangs and all that sort of thing. And it turned out that it was estimated that Anthony banged his head 3 hours a day and that’s what was causing the open lesions over him. That was a dangerous self stimulatory behavior that we had to address quickly. I also had another former client who was in sixth grade when I started with him, and he would script, he would have nonsense language. He would say, you know, Miss Mary has a striped shirt on or can I hop like a kangaroo? And it was a very, what I would call a defective mand for attention and all this nonsense language. And when I asked the staff to count those just to get a baseline of what was going on, it was about 500 times a day that this boy would have some kind of, you know, just inappropriate nonsense language which were defective, mands for attention. So in either case, the head banging or the scripting was interfering with the learning of these children and interfering with their in the sixth graders case, interfering with his placement in the two year old’s place, interfering with his health and safety. As I said at the very beginning, I do have a free download with the six steps to Reduce stimming and you can get that at Mary Barbera dot com for stimming. We’ll also link it in the show notes so if you want to go on Mary Barbara dot com for her podcast and look at any of the podcasts and listen to them and get any show notes or assessments or articles that I’m referencing any time they’re always going to be there. So let me quickly cover the six steps to reduce or eliminate stimming.
Step 1: Assessment
Mary: So the first step, which if you listen to any of my podcasts or video blogs, number one step is always assessment. And some people call it stimming, some people call it self Stim, self stimulatory behavior, but it can have different forms, it can have rocking, it can have banging, it can have humming, making noises or repetitive movements like spinning or putting things in or lining toys up. And then a higher form of stimming could be scripting, scripting from movies, scripting from previous conversations. And it can involve some things like flapping, which are one of the earliest warning signs of autism as well. So when we say assessment, we want to assess the whole child and all the problem behaviors, not just Stimming. We want to assess the child’s age, their language ability, their social ability, their ability to imitate, match and answer questions and those sorts of things. And then we want to assess major problem behaviors. In the case of Anthony, his head banging was a major problem. In the case of the sixth grader, it was majorly disruptive, but it wasn’t really hurting anybody, just affecting the learning. So if you have major problem behaviors and the stimming or scripting is not one of those major problem behaviors, then it might not even be time to really address the stimming. You might want to address the major problem behaviors that are causing harm to themselves or others first. So once we do an overall assessment, and I do have a one page assessment and plan in my three step guide, which you can get at MaryBarbera.com/join. And that’s a one page assessment you can do very quickly on any client or your own child no matter what the age and that might give you a quick assessment of what might be the most important things to plan for. Okay. So once you do an overall assessment, then we look at stim behaviors. What does a stim look like or sound like? How often does it occur? So for the two year old, we obviously couldn’t stay there 24 hours a day for three days to get an accurate baseline. It wasn’t necessary and it wasn’t practical. And we needed to get that rocking, banging out of the way as quickly as possible so that the lesion could heal, which it did within a couple of months of me starting with the boy once a week that the lesion did heal and he stopped head banging so much. And then I usually like for the sixth grader, I recommended counting on a clicker. But this was a long, long time ago. This is more than a decade ago. So right now, I don’t recommend counting stim behavior like I got 500 times a day. We only did that for like three days straight. And then we were able to switch it to a partial interval data collection form, which I talk more about in my online courses. But even with the sixth grader, we had a clicker and we clicked. How much problem behavior, how much nonsense language scripting he did. But we would clear the clicker every 15 or 30 minutes. I forget what it was, and we would write down a partial in a row form. You know, he was spelling and he had 30 scripts and then he was at lunch and this is the number. So we would clear the clicker so that we not only had how many times he scripted, we could identify, which is the next point on the assessment, which activities were producing a lot more scripting than others. And what I noticed for the sixth grader is he was learning to type. And when he was in typing class, he had almost zero scripts because his mind was busy. He was getting enough reinforcement and enough at his own level demands. And so during the typing class, he was great with his scripting. So then we noticed, okay, which activities have the highest scripting? We actually ended up doubling his typing time and all throughout I worked with this boy from sixth grade until he was 21. And in the end we really needed to look and find a job for him post-graduation that involved really keeping him really busy so that there wasn’t a lot of time for this nonsense language. So overall assessment, what does this Stim look like and sound like? How often does it occur and what activities does it occur a lot in and what activities does it hardly ever occur.
Step 2: Plan
Mary: And that is going to help you go to step number two, which is planning. And we need to make a plan based on the assessment and we want to increase functional language, decrease problem behaviors. Now, if the Stim behavior is dangerous, like it was with the two year old Anthony that I talked about, then you would want to, if at all possible, consult with a board certified behavior analyst who can do a functional behavior assessment and or a functional analysis. However, if you are a BCBA and you get called on to a case to do an FBA or an FA, make sure you also do a language assessment such as the VB-Mapp assessment, or even just use my simple tools in my three step guide to help you see the whole picture. Because if you just go in to reduce Stim and you don’t look at the whole picture, it just may end up backfiring. So step one is all about assessment. And step two is about planning. And remember that goals and the plan should be based on the child’s age, their language ability, their all their problem behavior.
Step 3: Teach language, leisure, and social skills
Mary: Self stim cannot be treated or reduced in a vacuum. In general, especially with self-stim behavior that is not harmful, I don’t treat it. I just spend 95% of my time preventing stim by getting the language up. Having a lot of pairing, amending sessions, reducing times in the day, or activities that will lead to high stim behavior and not being reactive to it. So there is a procedure that literally until a few years ago I had never even heard of called response interruption and redirection. And I don’t use it. I don’t believe in it because it is a reactive strategy. And whenever we’re reacting to problem behaviors, it’s a no win situation. And what I found is with extensive programing using the VB-mapp is what the the tool that I use within my online courses and community by using the baby map, getting the milestones up, getting the problem behaviors and barriers down, we can turn the tide and really help these kids. I have one example that I had a girl, I’ll call her Lucy, and she was, I think, just about five years of age. She was going to enter kindergarten when I did my first functional behavior assessment of her. And I observed Lucy in three different settings in the home at special needs preschool and within typical daycare, where she was there for socialization with a therapist to support her. And in all three situations now, Lucy was pretty much level two, level three baby map. So she was five, but she was functioning more at a three year old level of language and social abilities. She had a lot of Stim behavior. In fact, I did partial interval data collection across all three settings, and Lucy had 90% of the intervals where she had some kind of Stim behavior. She would get a utensil from the kitchen, from the kitchen, and she would plop it. So there is a self stimulatory behavior that’s a movement. She would also script from movies she might rock. So 90% of the animals across all three settings had a yes for she did do some kind of Stim. And by the time she got to second grade, those Stims were down to near zero levels across school and home. And people were like, Well, how did you do it? Well, three years of great programming is how we did it. And so it’s not a quick fix. If you have a kid that is very self-stimulatory, it’s going to take some time and it’s going to take great programing. And if you have an intermediate learner being level two or a level three VB-mapp learner who’s functioning at an 18 month old level two or four year old level, if you have an intermediate learner with autism who has a lot of scripting and stimming, it takes great programing and you’re not going to be able to turn things around with with a reactive strategy like this response interruption and redirection is just, in my experience, not going to work. So when we talk about preventing the self Stim behavior, whether it’s dangerous or not, but in the case of the two year old Anthony, who was banging his head, so part of my assessment was, okay, what activities is he banging his head? And that was just through an interview. Okay. When we put him down for a nap before he falls asleep, he’s banging. And he was at that point two years old, going down for two naps, a morning nap and an afternoon nap. So he was banging for, say, 20 minutes. Then he’d fall asleep and he’d wake up in the pack and play or the crib, start banging again for another 15 minutes. Then the babysitter would get him. He was banging when he sat in a high chair, high highchair he was banging when he was left in the living room or the family watching TV. He was just gently banging on a sofa. So what we did just preventative wise just to try to get the banging down just to some degree is we got a low booster seat instead of the highchair. We advised one nap a day instead of two so that Anthony was tired when he was put down. And as soon as he woke up, if there was any head banging, with or without? As soon as you hear him wake up, boom, you go get him. Get him out and engage him. So what Anthony really needed was to be engaged with age appropriate early learning materials and programs. And that’s what we did. Okay. So after assessment and planning, the next step on this sheet of mine that you can download at MaryBarbera.com/stimming if self stim is is disruptive but not dangerous, we want to well, even if it is dangerous like in the case of Anthony we did eliminate all that but we really want to focus really on language and social abilities. We want to as much as possible ignore the self Stim behavior as we try to turn up the burners to pair early learning materials such as puzzles, potato heads, shoebox, and all the programs that I teach within my toddler preschool or course, as well as my early learning course. If you have an older child who is not speaking or speaking very little, you can find out more about my online courses at MaryBarbera.com/workshop. So we want step three to focus really on the language skills and try to bring those up while preventing problem behavior.
Step 4: Allow Time for Stimming
Mary: Step four is when there is no one to engage your child or clients say you have a meeting or you have a phone call that you have to get on or you want to take a shower and you want the child. Remember I said, Stim is just a leisure activity. So there are going to be times, minutes, hours of a day when you just can’t be on your child or engaging your clients at all moments. So what you want to do in those situations is pick Stim activities that are safe and as age appropriate as possible. If you know, if he loves to line up, blocks then and blocks are safe for the child. The blocks are big enough and he’s not going to choke. And he likes it. It’s not going to hurt anything if he Stims for 15 minutes or 30 minutes, what with the blocks while you get something done that is important to you.
Step 5: Create Functional Stimming Habits
Mary: Step number five, kind of these kinds of all go together. But step number five is to use stimming to your advantage. So when you are teaching language, look at the Stim behaviors. For one of my clients, he likes to put straws in a bottle, which was, you know, minutes or hours a day. So he likes to put things in. So that’s part of our early learning programing is we have a lot of putting things in. So we were able to use that to help him. If you like it, if the child likes to spin, you can use an office chair and you can try to control the spin, have the child say or sign spin. And then that way you are using it to your advantage. So look at how the child spins. If they are looking at their fingers or flapping their arms, they might enjoy things that twirl lights with sounds. If they like to rock, you know, you might want to get a rocking chair and those sorts of things.
Step 6: Embed Yourself and Language into Stims
Mary: And then step number six again, kind of molded here is you do want to teach a child demand or request for Stim behavior, Stim activities, materials. So I do believe that all kids with autism and all of us have sensory issues, sensory needs. And so we want to enrich the environment of Stim behaviors and stimulation. We want to be a part of it as much as possible. And we want the child to request as much as possible, because that’s really going to be the thing that boosts their language the most. So say your child likes to rock, so we might get one of those big exercise balls and we might pair the word rock and bounce and roll the ball over the child and say roll. And so even if the child can’t speak, just doing those activities, looking for things like smiles and engagement, and it may take a while, it may take a while.
Mary: So these steps might really help you in terms of seeing Stim behaviors as normal as things. We just need to enrich and get more and more functional. So the key to stopping self-stimulatory behavior is to know that you cannot you can’t stop any behavior. Every behavior that should be reduced, could be reduced, must be replaced with an equivalent functional behavior that’s reinforced. So we’re not looking to stamp out stimming. We’re looking at building leisure skills. Building language skills, building social skills so that the child can reach his or her fullest potential. So we always want to keep the child as safe as possible. We want to encourage independence and happiness. Those are my goals for every child and whether that child has autism or not. So in summary, the six steps to reduce or eliminate self-stimulatory behavior that is either causing harm or is disruptive is to do an assessment. Make a plan. Teach language. Allow self Stim activities, especially when you’re busy that are safe. Embedding self-stimulatory behavior with yourself, like making yourself a part of it and encouraging the child to request it, is the last step request for self-stimulatory behaviors request with you present. So the more we can get into our child or client’s world and encourage language and social and leisure skills, the better he or she will do. So if you would like to learn more about my step by step system to help toddlers just showing signs with autism all the way up to young adults with moderate severe autism, feel free to attend a free online workshop at MaryBarber.com/workshop and I will see you right here next week.
Mary: If you’re a parent or professional and I have listened to this whole podcast episode, perhaps many of the podcast episodes, I am here to tell you that your next best step is to most likely join our online course and community. We have a course now for toddlers and preschoolers. We also have a course to help older school aged children who are still struggling with talking tantrums, picky eating, sleeping, potty training and so much more. The courses have very similar modules, very similar themes, but different case studies, different examples, different success stories. It is 60 days access in eight weeks, you can literally turn things around for your family or at your school in homes, helping families. Either way, it’s an amazing community filled with parents and professionals from over 100 countries. I hope you check out all the details at MaryBarbera.com/courses and I hope to see your introduction in our community today.
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