Last week, I talked about the more difficult behaviors that can sometimes pose a danger to autistic individuals and/or others. There is another category of behaviors that are pretty much a benchmark of what we consider to be autism, and those are the ones I want to address here.
In the autism world, these behaviors are often referred to as stimming behaviors. They can range from verbal (repeating words, making unusual sounds), to physical (rocking, jumping) and all points in-between.
Let’s go to a new client for a moment. His name is David. David is 7 years old, and his parents are a bit flustered at how he often waves his fingers in front of his face. He will do this for hours if they let him (which they really don’t want to), and they want it to stop because it is keeping him for getting through the school day. It also draws attention when they are out and about. He always seems to get very excited when he does this.
The reflex move, of course, is to just tell him to stop. If they are particularly frustrated, the parents may physically move his hands to his sides or threaten to take away his favorite toys (Legos). This only makes him frustrated, which leads to either a meltdown or David aggressively doing the behavior even more. The truth is, there is a very simple reason why David does this action.
It makes him feel good.
There used to be a notion that these behaviors were a sort of torture for the client, and that the therapist/interventionist was “freeing” them from it by stopping the behavior by force (physically, verbally, or otherwise). Now that more and more autistic adults are speaking up, we are learning (or at least I hope we are learning) that the stimming behaviors are actually relieving the so-called “torture.” The difficult part for our clients is navigating an overstimulating, often unpredictable world. In my work, these behaviors signal that the client is trying to calm and steady themselves in the best way for them. When I see them, I want to find out why the behavior is happening. Either something in the environment has shifted, or there has been a build-up of uncomfortableness for the client.
Or, you know what? Maybe they just felt like being happy in that moment.
Much like the previous entry, a bit of detective work can go a long way. After doing some data collection, we discovered that the finger waving would often increase just before going somewhere that involved being in a crowd. We gave him a fiber optic wand as a possible sensory replacement, which he loved. The family also started giving him plenty of warning as to when they were going to go out. We even went a step further and created mini social stories about frequent places they visited (complete with pictures from those places). While David still waves his fingers sometimes (especially when excited), it has decreased along with his anxiety. We didn’t stop the behavior because it was “wrong,” we adjusted it and the environment so that the anxiety that causes the behavior would decrease.
To put it more simply: if someone bites their nails, forcing them to stop will just make them either do it more in secret, or lead to them switching to another tic. Uncover the source of the emotion behind the action first.
Finally, I wanted to share a blog post from another blog that I follow. The author touched on this very subject, and it is a great way to hear about stimming behavior from an autistic adult.
Next week: About The Siblings…