When to kick against stimming as a coping mechanism for autism

Stimming is healthy for autistic kids

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Photo Credit: Peshkova/iStock Photo

You’ve probably heard it before that it’s wrong to stop an autistic kid from stimming. If that’s what he likes to do, why not just allow him? Autistic kids, as we know them, are kids who struggle to cope, communicate, and interact socially. In most severe cases, some might even avoid company or maintaining eye contact with people.

So, if flapping their hands, pacing up and down, pulling their hair, chewing their nails, or blinking their eyes repeatedly is what keeps them distracted from the sensory overload they’re dealing with why not just let them continue doing so?

Well, if you also belong to this school of thought, you’re not completely wrong.

All stims are not created equal

Due to the issue of anxiety in children with autism, there’s been a growing case of stimming behavior, as the CEO of Autism Parenting Magazine confirmed, “Children are experiencing a large increase in “stimming behavior” and anxiety in children with autism.”

And to cope with these anxieties, many of them turn to stimming.

But what happens when the stim your kid is using as a coping mechanism for autism becomes destructive? What happens when what is supposed to help him maintain focus is becoming a danger to him? Would you still allow that?

Of course not!

Parents no longer let stimming slide; they seek help

Unfortunately, dangerous and unhealthy stimming is now becoming a prevalent issue in our society. And as you might have guessed, most parents are now feeling the heat of having kids who injure themselves and others around them.

According to the CEO of Autism Parenting Magazine, “there has been a large increase in parents seeking help for their child during these difficult times.”

These parents are seeking help because, apparently stimming is now becoming a danger rather than a coping mechanism.

When to kick against stimming as a coping mechanism for autism

As a parent or a guardian of an autistic kid, the onus is on you to help your child get over their stims once it’s obvious that such stims are dangerous and injurious to them.

Generally speaking, unhealthy stims can be classified under two major umbrellas, which are:

  • Overload
  • Bad Habits

Overload

These are the kinds of stims exhibited by kids who are trying to drown out everything else around them. Autistic kids exhibit overload stimming because they want to completely block out their overload or source of anxiety. Common examples of overload stimming include:

  • Headbanging, especially against harmful surfaces
  • Biting, scratching, and nipping areas of the body
  • Hitting oneself or throwing oneself against harmful surfaces
  • Tearing or pulling one’s hair
  • And any other kind of injurious behavior that happens suddenly and forcefully.

Bad habits

These are the kinds of stims that are exhibited in a slow, gradual way, but which – if left uncontrolled – have the potential to cause serious damages. They include:

  • Biting, picking, or scraping at finger or toe nails or points of injury
  • Cutting, burning, biting, or stabbing oneself
  • Skin Picking (Dermatillomania) and hair plucking (trichotillomania)
  • Pica (eating non-edible items like foil, paper, plastics, rubber).

By and large, an autistic would resort to unhealthy stimming when the overload or source of anxiety has become too overwhelming for them. For them, the idea is to use a far more serious stimulation to block out a source of anxiety.

That is, “The stronger the overload or anxiety, the stronger the stim has to be to provide the needed relief.”

How to help an autistic kid get over unhealthy stims

There are two ways to help your autistic kid stop harmful stimming. They include:

Removing the problem

First and foremost, try and remove the overload stressor – that is, what is causing the kid to resort to injurious stims. It’s best if you can address what is causing the overload behavior to ramp up, and pre-emptively remove the stressor before overload happens and harmful stimming starts.

For example, if you observe that the overload is always stemming from the kid not getting what he wants or when he’s exposed to some sort of smell, sight, or sound. You can help prevent him from resorting to harmful stimming by removing these triggers ahead of time.

Redirecting the stim

In the unfortunate event that you cannot remove the stressor or cannot even wrap your head around what it is, the next best thing would be to try and redirect the stims into something less harmful.

Remember that the reason why the kid is hurting himself is because he needs to focus on something whose sensation is stronger than the sensation of the overload. So, if you’re redirecting his stims, it has to be with something which serves the same purpose.

A few examples of safe, intense stimulation to provide are:

  • deep pressure (squeezing up and down the arms, pinching the fingertips, a strong bear hug, or lying on top of the person)
  • vibration in the chest area or around the mouth (a massager on the chin and mouth area, or rhythmically pounding on their back with your hand)
  • loud music (playing a rhythmic, sensory-oriented song, or singing close to their ear)
  • strong vestibular input (spinning or pushing them in a swing, or, if size and strength allow, picking them up and spinning them around)

If you’re not sure what kind of stimulation your charge likes best, pay attention to what they’re seeking through their behavior.

  • Is she hitting or biting herself? She needs deep pressure. Focus first on the areas she’s hitting.
  • Is he screaming? He needs auditory input. Play some loud music. Using your phone is best since you can move it around. For added input, move the speaker back and forth, from one ear to the next, or move it forward and back, close to the ear and away again.
  • Is she throwing objects, trashing the room, or throwing herself on the floor? She needs vestibular input. Put her in a swing, on a bouncer or trampoline, or pick her up and spin her around.

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