What Is Stimming?
“Stimming” is a term for the act of engaging in a repetitive behavior, which roots itself in the word “self-stimulation”. The repeated behavior may be in the form of speech, motor functions (i.e., a continuous, repeated movement), and/or involve the sensory system.
Many of us may display these stereotypical behaviors on a smaller, short-term scale if we feel stressed or anxious.
For others, engaging in this repeated behavior could have an unhealthy effect on a child’s daily functioning and ability to complete tasks that are part of our duties and routines. A child’s stimming could become disruptive to others around them, particularly in the classroom where expectations and standardized behaviors are unyielding. Usually, the quantity of the stimulation is greater, as it occurs more frequently, and the choice of the stimulation may not be considered appropriate. For example, some of us bite our nails or “wag” or tap our foot while sitting, which are generally accepted by society’s standards. For those that stim constantly or hold a lower regard for how their repetitive behavior affects others, their ability to socialize and form relationships becomes threatened.
Here’s a clip of what stimming can look like: http://www.youtube.com/watch/?v=Q-5EeauFxJE
Common examples of stimming can include repetition of:
- rocking back and forth, jumping, spinning in place or twirling around, running in circles, head shaking, pacing back and forth, swinging, walking in patterns (vestibular system)
- rubbing face/hands, picking nails, scratching, tapping, toe-walking (tactile)
- pacing, jumping, grinding teeth, bumping into objects and walls (proprioception)
- echolalia (repeating speech and sounds), tapping/clapping/snapping to elicit sound, humming (auditory)
- sniffing objects/people (olfactory)
Occupational Therapy Treatment for Stimming
Stimming behaviors are usually either calming or alerting to the body. It’s the body’s way of coping. If one is ever trying to get rid of a “bad habit”, our bodies will adjust much better when we attempt to replace the bad habit with a good one. This way, our brains and bodies aren’t left empty handed with no coping tools to use when it needs!
Replacing the stimming behavior can be done through sensory integration. So, an occupational therapist (OT) can design a sensory diet (nothing to do with food) for the child, where items and strategies, specifically catered to the child, can be used to reduce the interference of their stimming with their daily tasks. For example, if a child is always pacing back and forth or getting out of their chair to spin or rock (in the classroom, at home during mealtime or completing a craft), an OT may suggest sitting on a large therapy ball instead of a chair. Used this way, the ball provides the appropriate and controlled amount of proprioceptive and vestibular input because the body’s muscles will constantly be making tiny adjustments to sit upright and maintain balance. Also, the child can subtly bounce while remaining functional and continuing on with their task.
As children grow older, they can be educated to become more aware of what stims they may engage in, and an OT may work on giving them choices of what options they have to calm or excite their body given various situations. This way, the child can transfer their skills and become better prepared for unpredictable circumstances and changes in routine, or when certain therapeutic equipment is unavailable.