My name is Mandy Coleman and I work as a senior primary behavior therapist at our Winona location. I have worked at the Winona Partners since they opened four years ago in both introductory pods and now work in our functional living skills pod (pod 43). One of the things I love most about pod 43 is the wide variety of kids we have and seeing the progress they make on a daily basis. One classification of behavior that can be found at Partners is the occurrence of stereotypy.
What is stereotypy?
Stereotypy is defined as the persistent repetition of an act with no obvious purpose to observers, but serves some purpose to the individual. At Partners, we often call it “stimming” or self-stimulatory behaviors. Stimming can take many forms depending on the child and their preferences, but two common broad categories to classify stims are Motor and Vocal.
Examples of Motor Stims
- Hand flapping
- Repetitive jumping or spinning
- Repetitive movements with an object
Examples of Vocal Stims
- Scripting (repeating lines from movies/TV, books, or other sounds heard in their environment)
- Humming or singing
- Tongue clicking
Other stims can include auditory (ex: tapping items close to their ears), visual (ex: eye edging, lining toys up), or olfactory stims (ex: putting items in their mouth, licking items).
Stimming can fall into multiple categories depending on the function of the stim and the automatic reinforcement that the child receives from the stim. For example, a child tapping two wooden blocks together might get stimulation from watching the blocks crash together, the noise the blocks make when they crash together, and the movement of crashing the blocks together.
So why do kids with autism stim?
Several individuals with autism have spoken out about their stimming behaviors on various social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok as a way to educate others on their behaviors. One of these individuals on TikTok describes the feeling of stimming as “the most therapeutic thing” she does during her day (she explained in a previous video that her hand flapping and head shaking stims usually occurred when she was feeling more anxious or more excited than usual) and that the stim filled her need to “act out her feelings with her body”. She ends her short video by saying that this was just her experience with her stims and that everyone has unique stims and has their own experience with them.
From a technical standpoint, Behavior-analytic theories suggest that stereotypy (stimming) functions to provide sensory input to an individual, either because of too little or too much environmental input (Lovaas, Newsom, & Hickman, 1987). Other theories suggest that kids may also engage in these behaviors because of reinforcement that they have gotten in the past. For example, if a child is tapping an item near his ear for auditory input in a loud room, he gets the automatic reinforcement of tapping the item but also can escape the loud noises of his environment. Generally, when kids engage in stimming, it is giving them some sort of pleasure of from it, even if the purpose is not clear to other people (it only has to make sense to the individual).
Every individual engages in stimming at some point, even if they are not aware. A college student sitting in a lecture tapping their foot can be a stim. A woman fidgeting with her necklace while watching TV can be a stim. A man tapping his fingers on the desk while he thinks can be a stim. There is no obvious purpose for these individuals doing these things from an outside perspective, and if you asked those individuals, they might not even be able to tell you why they do it, it might just be because it feels normal and natural for them to do it. It’s the same for kids with autism. There may not be a clear function for their stim, it may just feel good to them. For our kids, it is important to remember that it is not necessary to completely eliminate a child’s stimming, but rather teach them when are appropriate times to do it (like during free time or after they ask for a break from the pod/classroom tasks) versus when the child should be on task.
When are appropriate times to redirect stimming?
- Group/classroom times when the client and/or peers are expected to pay attention to the lead teacher
- When the stim is inhibiting the learner’s ability to complete a task
- When the stim can be harmful or dangerous to the child or others
If you are trying to redirect stimming, one option is to get them engaged (or re-engaged) in an activity. This gives them the reminder of what their expectations are during that time and can get them back on task. Another option is to give them language that expresses what they are thinking or feeling (such as “it looks like you’re bored” or “it looks like you’re excited”). Doing this validates that their stimming is okay but also gives them language to better communicate about how they’re feeling with others. If the child seems dysregulated while they are stimming, offering movement breaks or fidget breaks can also be beneficial for redirecting and getting the child back on task.
Something I have heard from parents throughout my 4 years at Partners is what they can do if their child is stimming in public and people stare at their child. There is no perfect answer because each child and parent is different and it will depend on their comfort level. One solution however is to just ignore other people (and yes, I know that this is easier said than done) and to just remind yourself that YOU are your child’s parent, the people of Target don’t know how amazing your child is. Another option is to narrate what your child is doing. For example, if you are in the toy isle and your child is jumping, screeching and hand flapping, you can try saying “I know, that’s a really cool toy, I feel excited about it too!” This validates your child expressing themselves, but also gives the bystanders information about what your child is doing and that it is normal. Another option is to address the observer and simply state “this is how they shows that they’re happy or excited” and ask them if they have any questions. If you are in a child rich environment (like at a park), other kids in general are pretty accepting and are just curious about what’s going on and a simple explanation will normalize stimming to the other kids. Other kids may be blunt and say things like “that’s weird”, but that can be responded to with a simple “Yeah we all do weird things sometimes”. Stimming is normal and your child has every right to express themselves if they are being safe.
Kennedy, C. H., Meyer, K. A., Knowles, T., & Shukla, S. (2000). Analyzing the multiple functions of stereotypical behavior for students with autism: Implications for assessment and treatment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 33(4), 559–571. https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.2000.33-559
Lovaas, I., Newsom, C., & Hickman, C. (1987). Self-stimulatory behavior and perceptual reinforcement. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 20(1), 45–68. https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.1987.20-45