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Stimming and Autism: how to emotionally regulate and stop meltdowns

What is Stimming and how does it relate to autism?

Stimming involves a wide variety of self-stimulating behaviours that people with autism may perform when experiencing sensory overload or high levels of anxiety. Stimming usually involves a repetitive motion or behaviour, such as hand flapping, rocking, repetition of words or phrases, excessive fidgeting behaviours such as clicking fingers, or the repetitive movement of objects.

Why do people with autism stim?

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be very sensitive to their environment and the world around them. When feeling overstimulated, overwhelmed or anxious, performing a stimming behaviour can help an autistic person stay calm and help them to emotionally regulate. Stimming can help them deal with sensory overload by focusing their attention on the stimming behaviour while helping to block out external stimuli from their senses.

Sensory overload and harmful stimming behaviours.

If an individual becomes too overwhelmed and overstimulated by their environment, they may exhibit negative or dangerous stimming behaviours. These stimming behaviours can involve self-harm behaviours, such as head banging, nail biting, hair pulling, or inappropriate outbursts in social settings.

When this type of stimming occurs, it means the individual’s senses have been overloaded and the stimulus causing this overload needs to be removed. Its best if you can identify what is causing the overload behaviour to escalate and then pre-emptively remove the stressor before overload happens (and harmful stimming begins). 

This recently happened to a friend of mine who took her son to his first AFL football game in Melbourne. It was crowded and noisy - resulting in sensory overload and uncontrollable meltdowns. She contacted me the following week to discuss our noise cancelling Ems for Kids Earmuffs, as they were attending a Grand Prix circuit the following week. Her son was able to wear his earmuffs and block out the external noise of the cars and the crowd. By removing the overwhelming stimulus of loud noise, he felt feel safe, calm and regulated. And there were no meltdowns!

ems-for-kids-noise-cancelling-earmuffs

Provide safe outlets for stimming to occur.

When someone is heading towards sensory overload, work with them to see if you can redirect their stim to something less harmful. Some ideas for this include:

  • Give them a fidget toy - such as a squeezing a stress ball, repetitively moving a hand roller, kicking a foot fidget deskerciser band or stroking a soft weighted toy.
  • If they are chewing to regulate (such as biting their nails or clothing) replace this with a safe chewing product such as a chew pendant necklace or teether.
  • If they are starting to move their body in a restless and aggressive manner, there are two options to try, depending on the individual:
    • Direct them to a “sensory chill out zone” or “calm corner” of the house or classroom. This is an area with reduced stimulation. It should be quiet (or have calming music), dimly lit, and have some regulation items such as a weighted blanket or toy, some books or emotions cards.
    • Alternatively, take them to a safe place to let this energy out, such as swinging in their sensory swing, rolling on a gymnic physio roll peanut ball or going for a walk.
  • If they are in full sensory overload, this might mean choosing a different painful but safe coping stim, such as holding an ice cube, listening to loud music, scribbling on paper repeatedly or jumping on a trampoline.

The way an autistic person stims to emotionally regulate is completely different and depends on the individual. Some things will work for one person and not another. Trial a range of different strategies until you find one that works.

chill-out-zone-sensory-room

Let them stim!

By being aware of the positives of stimming behaviours, we can help individuals with autism redirect these behaviours in a safe way that will ultimately help them feel emotionally regulated, calm and socially included.

 

This article was written by Sarah James, psychology teacher and owner of the NDIS Registered business The Sensory Specialist.