To Stim Or Not To Stim?

Cynthia Carr Falardeau

We all do it. We have funny little ways that we settle our nerves or process the world around us. For many, like my son, taking in information can send him into overload.

You see many children and adults with Autism Spectrum and Related Disabilities also often have Sensory Integration Disorders. This means the information they are receiving about their surroundings may not be accurate. In their effort to cope, they may do things to calm their nerves. These activities may range from flapping their hands, to rocking, to humming, to spinning, or to lining up their toys.

These behaviors may range from visual, auditory, tactile, vestibular, taste and smell.

My son, like many, uses a combination. He will produce a verbal humming noise and run or walk in a pattern.It’s as if he is screaming, “Too much! Sensory overload… overload…overload!!!”

I have to say that at eight years of age it happens less frequently. However, it is not any easier to watch or to redirect him out of the haze.

As I note in the title of this piece, this behavior is viewed as an option. Observers may judge that you simply tell the child to stop the action. If only it were that simple for him. The reality of that statement is that it often heightens the actions.

To some extent you can redirect the child. But often, it is a matter of adjusting or changing the environment that is sending the person into overload.

I mean, think for a moment, what sends you into orbit?I know I have my list. As a hard working mother who juggles to balance work, home and my son’s intense therapy schedule, I have little patience for a certain group of moms. You know the ones. They have little to do other than to compare senseless gossip and brag to about who is, “Busy! Bus!, Busy!” I suppose it’s my problem but frankly, they make my teeth hurt.

I think the same is true for my son. Some situations are too much for him. So he finds a way to cope.

1. New and unstructured situations: We once had a school psychologist tell us that she didn’t think our son was Autistic. My husband and I almost burst into laughter. When we asked her why, she replied that she had never seen him exhibit any Autistic behaviors.After further discussion it as revealed that in structured settings our son’s stims were not present. When we enter a new setting or surrounds…it’s his way of making sense of sensory input.

2. Excitement: Think about when you are so excited you want to jump out of your skin. For our son, he will fixate on a phrase or repeat a series of activities. He will often repeat verbatim the instructions of a ride or a movie.

3. Certain situations send him into orbit: Flashing lights and loud music will either make him cover his ears or act out as a means of finding order.

4. Computer games and YouTube: Educational or not…these sources of media are often like crack cocaine to our son. We often have to limit his time with these mediums. If we let him, he would precipitate, watching for hours. They are a source of sensory input in a matter that he can control.

5. Smell is a Calming Sense: Our son will often hug you tight and breathe in deeply. He does it with those he loves best. It’s sort of primal but it brings him comfort.

So now you know a little bit about what causes these behaviors in our son. Here is what we do to try to redirect him out of the haze of a stim:

1. Plan – Structure is the key to managing behaviors.

2. Learn to talk them off the edge – Sometimes I have walked into a new store to pick up a quick item. The place is unfamiliar to our son. New sounds, bright lights or colors, people, ect. All of a sudden he will begin to act out by knocking off merchandise. It’s as if aliens have taken over his body. All the time making his verbal humming noise, the stim. When we exit the behavior stops. I am always amazed at what sets it off. When I ask him he will tell me, “I did not like…...” The blanks are filled in with how loud another customer was, or how annoying an automated display was.

3. Take a break – sometimes you just need to get out of the situation or step into a quiet place.

4. Educate: Let others know what is happening – involve them in the process of interrupting the stim.

5. Talk about it – Our son was non-verbal for almost seven years. So we are sensitive to the fact this might not be an option. Now that he can speak in sentences, we ask him, “Why are you doing that? What is making you feel like you need to stim?” Sometimes he will just say, “Mom, it feels good!” Awareness is part of moving past any behavior.

6. Think about your own self calming behaviors – Recently, when I told a friend about how my son hums when he gets overwhelmed. She said, “Have you ever tried it?” For a moment I laughed out loud. But then I realized she had a point. It sort of felt good. When those “other mom’s” started their diatribe about how “busy, busy, busy” they all were….I internally made a humming noise. It was awesome! It totally blocked them out. It gave me a new perspective on my son’s difference!

I guess that’s just it. We all cope in different ways. Stims are just one of many ways that people with special needs try to make sense of their surroundings. It’s their way of creating order when they perceive no structure exists. The only thing that sets them apart from the rest of us is that their needs are often more apparent.

Courtesy of Parenting Special Needs Magazine

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