How it feels to a kiddo when we stop them from “stimming”….Is it harmful when someone forces them to stop or suppress their “stimming?”
You bet it is!
Speak to someone on the autism spectrum about how it feels. They describe it as very uncomfortable and sometimes even painful. It causes their nervous system to become unbalanced and “unregulated.” And it stops them from being in learning mode. It is like telling a person NOT to yawn or sneeze. Try not to scratch an itch…What happens?…The itch gets worse doesn’t it?
It helps to understand WHY someone who NEEDS to “stim” has the need in the first place. First…What is a “stim”? It is any of various repetitive actions or sounds that are rhythmic and regular, and that are either self-soothing or that stimulate one or more senses. Some examples of these are flapping the hands, rocking the body, spinning a chair, lining up toys, chewing on things or hard blinking of the eye lids. Most everyone “stims” in some way (nail biting, hair twirling, foot tapping, knuckle cracking, whistling, humming, doodling etc etc). But a person with autism does this more frequently than their neurotypical counterpart. These things calm emotions down, release physical tensions and/or reduce anxiety, by focusing the attention onto the stim or by producing a calming change in the body. By stimming, a body’s sensory system can be more regulated and more balanced. Eye contact is easier when a person is relaxed. Social interactions are easier when a person is relaxed. Learning is easier when a person is relaxed.
Stims are very diverse and are unique to each individual person. A body will find the perfect way for that body to calm when needed. If we allow it. It is an integral part of that person. Telling them that their stim is wrong is telling them that THEY are wrong. The more they are around people that feel this way about them and their stim, the more they will need to do it.
What can you do to help a person that stims? You can re-frame your thinking about the stim. Try doing it yourself. See how it feels. Figure out how that person benefits from taking part in this behavior. View it as a priceless tool for that person to be successful.
When you appreciate the stim, you support the person doing it.
by Michelle Lindee, developmental therapist