Your toddler stares at a light, flaps his hands or repeats the same sound over and over. It drives you crazy, but he doesn’t even seem to realize he’s doing anything. These are prime examples of stimming. Stimming is a term used for self-stimulating behaviors. Also known as stereotypy, this type of behavior disturbs some parents. While experts disagree on the cause of stimming, according to the Interactive Autism Network, a project of the Kennedy Krieger Institute, it occurs in children that are both under- and over-stimulated by their environment. Most stimming behavior starts during the toddler years. While it is associated with autism spectrum disorders, stimming has a wide range of causes, from ADHD to neurological issues.
What Is Stimming?
Stimmming takes many forms. Children who self-stimulate visually may stare at a light, a fan or their own fingers. Vocal stimming ranges from repetitive clicks to screaming. The largest category is physical stimming. A child who stimulates physically may grind her teeth, flap her hands or combine movements to create an intricate pattern of repetitive behavior. Left alone, she may stim for several minutes or continue the behavior for an hour or more.
Some parents find that distracting or re-directing the child stops the behavior as it's happening. For example, if the child starts staring at a light, call his attention to something else in the room. The child that flaps his arms may stop if you hand him something to squeeze, such as a soft toy. Distract a child who is practicing verbal self-stimulation with music or other pleasant sounds.
Experts at Johns Hopkins Medical Center state that behavioral therapy is the best way to stop or change stimming behavior. The child is first taught to recognize the behavior and become aware of the times when she self-stimulates. The parent can help the child by pointing out the behavior whenever she acts it out. The parent then rewards the child when she stops after the reminder. At no time should a child be punished for stimming. Self-stimulation isn’t something that the child is doing on purpose.
When to Worry
Anytime you see stimming behavior you should discuss the actions with your little one's pediatrician. If the behavior is a sign of autism or developmental delay, the earlier intervention begins, the better the child’s outlook. In addition, some stimming behavior is harmful. Children may pull their hair out, pick at skin or scratch areas until the skin bleeds. This behavior must be stopped as quickly as possible. Your pediatrician can help you find the right type of therapist to alter any self-harming behavior