What is Stimming?

One of the most common questions I get is about stimming and whether it’s a part of autism spectrum disorders.  Some people question what is stimming? So today I am answering a few questions about stimming. 

There’s a lot of misconceptions about stimming. I just want to make it clear. All people stim. All of our leisure activities are self-stimulatory behaviors. Basically, it’s the function of automatic reinforcement, which means that we do things for pleasure.  

What is Stimming?

For typically developing adults, our leisure activities, like throwing a ball into a net, bring us joy. The goal is to shoot the ball into the net and we could do that by ourselves. So we can do that for 15 minutes. We can do that for an hour. Another self-stimulatory behavior/leisure activity is playing the violin. We can hear when a note is off or a note is on and it builds joy and excitement. 

I learned to play the piano online during COVID. So I know my goal is to get the right notes and when I hit the wrong note I know it but I keep going, I don’t need anybody sitting around saying good job, or that was right or that was wrong. I can just play. And I can know whether I did a good job or not. But kids with autism or signs of autism are often very delayed with play skills and independent leisure activities. They can often stay in a very primitive kind of stimming. 

So stimming, basically, is what you do when nobody’s engaging you or reinforcing you, or there’s not much going on. If we were sitting in a lecture and it was in another language and we didn’t understand what they were saying, we might start doodling or get our phones out and start flipping through Facebook. These are activities to keep our brains active when the surroundings aren’t that fun. When waiting in line at the grocery store, we don’t just stand there waiting. We think about our next plan or we scroll through Facebook and those sorts of things. 

Harmful Stimming Behavior

But little kids who don’t have great play skills tend to do very repetitive things when they’re not engaged at the right level. They can rock. I had one client who banged his head on hard and soft surfaces until he had an open lesion on his head. He was only two and just diagnosed with autism. 

He had a wound on his head that I took a picture of when we first started because I knew that first and foremost, we needed to get rid of this wound. And when I asked the babysitter and the child’s mother how often did the banging happen and where and when the babysitter said that it happened about 3 hours out of the 9 she was there. It happened on a high back high chair, it happened in a  Pack ‘n’ Play when he was supposed to take a nap.  He was going down for two naps and banging before he fell asleep and when he woke up. He was banging again while he was sitting on the sofa watching TV.

So we got rid of the high back high chair and told the parents to go down to one nap a day and to get him as soon as he started banging.

Stimulating Behaviors and Repetitive Movements

Stim behaviors like banging can even be even more severe and cause more than an open wound. So stimming can be dangerous. But it also can just be repetitive, like rocking, vocal stimming, hand flapping, and making noises. 

Some people think stimming is just a part of autism, but I don’t agree. I think stimming happens when the child is not engaged in meaningful activities with high levels of reinforcement. 

And if a child is vocal stimming loudly, it can prevent the family from being able to go to church, a restaurant, or on a plane easily. And as kids get older, they can also develop scripting behaviors like scripting from movies repetitively. Which can affect where they can work, where they can go, and how much inclusion they have. So my goal is to help each child reach their fullest potential and be as engaged as possible. 

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The 3 Buttons

On another blog, I discuss Dr. Carbone’s 3 buttons. Whether you are at church, the table, or taking a bath, your child is pushing one or more of three buttons. The middle button is what we want the child to be pushing. And that means that the demands are good and also reinforcement is at the right level. 

If the child is not pushing that button, they could be pushing the escape button, which means they’re trying to get away from you. They’re whining, crying, swiping materials, or throwing things. Or they could be pushing the automatic reinforcement button. This is stimming, scripting, rocking, moaning, vocal stimming. Basically, it’s their verbal doodling. They’re telling you that the demands are not right and the reinforcement is not right. 

Stimming as Sensory Input

We are not trying to get a child to stop stimming. We are trying to get a child to go from rocking or banging his head to a better leisure activity. This might be stacking blocks over and over again. Or maybe watching the same TV over and over again. That’s stimming but it’s not dangerous, like banging your head, and it looks more appropriate. The child could go to church and sit with headphones on, potentially, and they could be happy stimming.

Now we don’t want the child to be stimming for hours a day. Especially if it’s not age-appropriate and really building on their skills. My client, Jack, stimmed with straws and bottles over and over again. But he also needed to learn to eat new foods, to talk, to get dressed, and those sorts of things. And so we’re not trying to stamp out stimming. What we are trying to do is make it into more appropriate leisure activities and prevent physical harm.

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And if you have more questions about what is stimming, be sure to check out my free guide on 6 steps to reduce stimming here.

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Transcript

One of the most common questions I get is about stimming: stimming, scripting, verbal stimming, all those kind of things and whether it’s a part of autism.  Some people question what is stimming? So today I am answering a question, a few questions about stimming and I hope you enjoy it. Hi, I’m Dr. Mary Barbera, autism mom, Board Certified Behavior Analyst and bestselling author.

Each week, I provide you with some of my ideas about turning autism or signs of autism around so if you haven’t subscribed to my YouTube channel, you can do that now.  Today, I am answering some questions about stimming and a short excerpt from our membership call. So I hope you enjoy the answers to what is stimming and is it a good thing, a bad thing, what should we do about it? And, uh, here’s my answer. But let’s just talk about stimming, because I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about stimming and a lot of autistic adults really don’t like the fact that behavior analysts even talk about any reduction of self stimulatory behavior. I just want to make it clear.

We all stim. We all, all of our leisure activities are stim behaviors or self stimulatory behaviors. Basically it’s the function of automatic reinforcement, which means that we do things for pleasure.  When we’re typically developing adults, our leisure activities, like throwing a ball into a net and getting the ball in the net brings us joy. We can either, you know, mark it down as how many points we got. Um, we, we definitely want, the goal is to shoot the baskets in the net. We could do that by ourselves. So we can do that for 15 minutes. We can do that for an hour. We also, another self stimulatory behavior, leisure activity, is playing the violin and we’re playing it because we, and we can hear when a note is off or a note is on and we can know we can hear it and it builds joy and excitement. I learned to play the piano, not great, but I definitely took lessons online and learned to play the piano during COVID. So I know my goal is to get the right notes and when I hit the wrong notes, I’m like, ah, but I keep going, I don’t need anybody sitting around saying good job, or that was right or that was wrong. I can just play. And I can know whether I did a good job or not. So kids with autism or signs of autism are often very delayed with play skills and independent leisure activities. Right? So what can happen is they can kind of stay in a very, um, primitive kind of stimming. So stimming basically is, is what you do when nobody’s engaging you or reinforcing you, or there’s not much going on.

So if we were sitting in a lecture and it was, you know, in another language and we didn’t even understand what they were saying, uh, we might start doodling or if we can, we can get out our phones and we can start flipping through Facebook. These are all activities to keep our brains active when the surroundings, aren’t that fun.  Waiting in line at the grocery store, we’re not just standing there waiting. We’re thinking about our next plan or we’re scrolling through Facebook and those sorts of things. So, but little kids who don’t have great play skills, um, tend to do very repetitive things, uh, when they’re not engaged at the right level. So, um, they can rock, they can, um, I had one client who banged his head on hard and soft surfaces until he had an open lesion on his head and he was only two and just diagnosed with autism.

He had actually a wound on his head that I took a picture of when we first started, because I knew that first and foremost, we needed to get rid of this wound. And when I asked the babysitter and the child’s mother, you know, how often does this, does this banging happen? And where does this banging happen?

And when does this banging happen? And the babysitter, um, said that it happened about, out of the nine hours that he was being watched per day there, it happened about three hours a day of banging and it happened on a high chair, on the, on a high back high chair, it happened in a pack and play when he was supposed to take a nap.  He was going down for two naps so he was sitting banging before he fell asleep and when he woke up.  He was banging again while he was sitting, watching TV was banging just on, on the hard surface, um, a soft surface of the edge of the sofa. It can be as severe as that. I mean, kids can even be more severe where it’s not just, you know, an open kind of brush burn, but it’s actually, you know, kids can be, uh, stimming and causing major injury.

Um, but in that case, you know, that was pretty severe. So we got rid of the high back high chair. And we told them to go down to one, one nap a day and to get him as soon as he started banging, like not to let them bang. Um, so stimming can be dangerous like that little boy, but it also can just be repetitive, like, like rocking, stimming, hand,  vocal stimming, hand flapping, like making noises, which people are like, well, stimming is a part of autism.

I don’t really think stimming is a part of autism. I think stimming happens when the child is not engaged in meaningful activities with high, high levels of reinforcement. I don’t think stimming has to be a part of autism. And if a child is vocal stimming loud, it does as a parent, I know this because Lucas had the vocal stimming and he still does, um, it will prevent the family from being able to go to church or go to a restaurant easily or go in a plane. So, um, and as kids get older, they can also develop scripting behaviors like scripting from movies, uh, repetitively, or, or those sorts of things which can affect where they can work and where they can go and how much inclusion they have.

So my goal is to help each child, you know, uh, reach their fullest potential and be as engaged as possible. Let me just pull this up quick and show you. This is, um, I have a blog on, this is called the three buttons and this was Dr. Carbone. So whether you are at church or at the table or taking a bath or at a restaurant, your child is pushing one or more of these three buttons.

So the middle button is what we want the child to be pushing. And that means that the demands are good, at the right ratio are, are good and also reinforcement is, is at the right level. So this could look like, you know, one of our questions is, is my child’s happy at the table, he’s doing matching and how can I get him to do X. But happy at the table, accepting reinforcement, doing matching, pointing is at the right level. Now, if the child is not pushing that button, they could be pushing the escape button, which means, um, they’re flopping they’re, they’re trying to get away from you. They’re whining, crying, swiping materials, throwing things, or the other button, which is automatic reinforcement, and this is stimming, scripting, rocking, moaning, vocal stimming, um, and basically it’s their verbal doodling or they’re, they’re telling you that the demands are not right and the reinforcement is not right. And so we are not trying to get rid of stimming. We are trying to get a child to go from rocking or banging his head to a better leisure activity, which might mean stacking blocks over and over again the same thing.  Or it might mean going to, you know, watching the same TV over and over again. That’s stimming, um, rewinding to the credits, that’s stimming. Um, but it’s not dangerous, not like banging your head, and it looks more appropriate. You could have headphones and you could take the child to church potentially, and they could be happy stimming.

Now we don’t want the child to be stimming four hours a day. Uh, especially if it’s not age appropriate and, and really building on their skills. Like I talk about my little client Jack a lot, and he stimmed with straws and bottles, um, over and over again. Well, he needs to learn to eat new foods, he needs to learn to talk, he needs to learn to, uh, get dressed and those sorts of things. And so we’re not trying to stamp out stimming. What we are trying to do is make it, uh, into appropriate or more appropriate leisure activities and definitely get rid of dangerous stimming, uh, like headbanging. I hope you enjoyed that short excerpt from a question and answer call all about stimming.

If you liked it, give me a thumbs up, share this video or leave me a comment. And if you would like more information about how you can, pre-order my new book, Turn Autism Around: An Action Guide for Parents of Young Children with Early Signs of Autism. Um, you can visit turnautismaround.com for pre-order information, for all information about how to get bonuses.

And if you join quickly, you can potentially join our book launch team as well. The actual physical copy of the hard cover, won’t be out until March 30th of 2021, but it’s also going to be available in Kindle and I read it for audible. So very exciting. It is going to be hopefully a big book, have a big impact so for all the details about my new book, go to turnautismaround.com and I’ll see you right here next week.

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