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Grandparents’ Guide to Stimming and How We Can Be Helpful

Stimming, or “self-stimulatory behavior”: it’s simply the word used to identify a lot of the repetitive behaviors that most of us do – and that are usually more pronounced and prevalent in persons on the autism spectrum.

In the general population, our stimming-type behaviors include things such as tapping our fingers, biting our nails, clicking pens, jiggling our feet, etc. Among persons with autism, common stimming behaviors include, but are not limited to, rocking, flapping hands and fingers, bouncing, twirling, walking on tiptoes, jumping, repetitive blinking, continual rubbing of the skin, staring at rotating objects such as ceiling fans, turning lights on and off, etc.

It is helpful if we autism grandparents are aware of three basic things about stimming:

  1. Stimming is not something that should be stopped unless it’s physically harmful (biting, kicking, head-banging, etc.). Stimming is often beneficial, and causing it to stop can be detrimental. And a stimming session can last from a few minutes to a few hours. Of course if stimming is a major disruption for specific situation, it may be appropriate to remove the stimmer from the situation.

  2. Occasionally stimming can be an indication of medical problems, and it is always and continually appropriate to have regular medical evaluations. For example, stimming may be a reaction to a toothache or stomach ache. Or it may relate to something more complex such as epilepsy.

  3. It isn’t possible to predict, as our grandchild gets older, whether stimming will increase, decrease, or eventually stop.

We grandparents can make use of this basic information when our grandchildren are in our care, and we can help educate our grandchild’s family. Sometimes immediate family members of persons on the autism spectrum are so occupied with basic caretaking that they simply don’t have time to do continual learning about autism. Often we grandparents have an availability of time to learn, and providing that knowledge to our grandchild’s parents and siblings is a great way for us to be of service.

The current opinion of many autism professionals is that stimming provides a variety of benefits: it feels good, it calms anxiety, it helps focus attention, it helps alleviate sensory overload and emotional stress, it helps express frustration, etc.

In previous years various extreme therapies were used to try to cause stimming to cease – therapies such as shock treatments, corporal punishment, and drugs. But today it is generally agreed that there is no reliable treatment or therapy that will have the singular result of stopping stimming.

However . . . there are ways to sometimes lessen the intensity and frequency of stimming. But this requires a lot of observation and documentation, and sometimes we grandparents are better situated to do this than are our grandchild’s parents. It’s a three-step process.

First we need to keep a log of when/where the stimming happens, including its duration and intensity and whether there is some sort of situational shift that coincides with the stimming’s cessation. This log may provide us with an idea of what conditions enable stimming to thrive. For example, does it happen mostly when there is more than one source of noise, or when it is nearing time for the next meal, or when a specific television show is on, or when there are two or more persons in the room, etc., etc., etc.

Second, but only if we are able to gain some prospective theories from our log, we can try to determine what emotions or stimuli are prevalent when the stimming starts. For example, if it occurs mostly when there is an overload of sounds, we may want to assume that stimming is a way of dealing with auditory overload and thus put in place things to lessen the frequency and intensity of such overloads. Or if it occurs mostly when it’s nearing time for a favorite activity, we may want to praise the stimming and offer a substitute for the stimming – such as offering a squeeze-toy to someone who flaps his hands.

Third, if the previous two steps are successful, we can do a deeper evaluation of our log, consider additional theories, and offer a variety of things to substitute for the stimming.

There is one thing to be aware of: when the act of stimming produces some sort of result that is considered positive (the television is turned off, the person gets a hug, you leave the store, etc.), it is likely that stimming will be continually used to produce that result.

But the bottom line is that all of this takes a generous amount of time and thought. And in most cases, stimming is beneficial rather than harmful.

There is another thing about stimming that is especially worrisome to autism families: social isolation and bullying. Stimming can make it harder to attract friends and playmates, and can cause unfair and inaccurate judgments. We grandparents can be proactive by explaining stimming to persons with whom our grandchild spends time and socializes – including our grandchild’s immediate family. Our message is straightforward and has three parts. First, those repetitive things are called stimming and it’s common in persons with autism. Second, all of us stim; for example, I jiggle my foot while I’m eating, and I bet you can think of stimming things that you do. And third, stimming isn’t an indication of whether we’re smart, whether we’re a good person, or whether we like to have friends; stimming is just something that happens and it’s more prevalent in persons with autism.

There is one other way that we grandparents can possibly be helpful regarding stimming. Some research has shown that regular physical exercise is accompanied by a lessening of stimming. So we can consider whether our caretaking activities can include exercise.

Stimming is one of the hallmark signs of autism, and we grandparents can be knowledgeable.



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