The Bridge: Behaviors, Part 2

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.

Oh the Ways We Love to Stim

Next week: About The Siblings…

When Play Goes Away

This article is not exactly autism-related, but it speaks to the consequences of the decline of play at the preschool level and how this is affecting sensory processing in young children. Definitely worth a read.

The Decline of Play in Preschoolers

Note: I will be getting back to The Bridge series shortly. My “day job” has a slew of reports due this week, so my brain is a little fried. If I don’t get it out this week, I definitely will first thing next week!

My Walking Buddy

Today, I was honored to be able to walk with over 30,000 others in my Bay Area city. It was refreshing to see so many people of different backgrounds, colors, and creeds come together to defend women and human rights. One of the best parts, though, was one of the individuals I got to walk with.

One of my friends moonlights as a respite worker for a former client of mine (I was the Program Supervisor for his case). He is 5 years old and autistic. His parents could not attend the Women’s March, but they agreed for my friend to take him with her. I hadn’t seen him in about 2 years, so I didn’t expect him to be too friendly with me. Still, I decided to stick close with her, her father, baby sister, and the boy in case they needed help during the march.

The boy handled the march beautifully. He made sure he was holding either mine or my friend’s hand as we walked. My friend explained that he starts blowing when he is getting overwhelmed (his variation of taking deep breaths). At one point, this happened while she was busy with her sister and could not hold him. I held my hands out to him, waiting to see if he was willing. After a second, he lifted his arms, and I picked him up. As long as he knew my friend was nearby, the boy snuggled into me and smiled.

We had lunch awhile later, and I sat with him while the others picked up the food. The two of us pointed at and talked about the different signs displayed on the wall (the restaurant has a 60’s theme), and I broke down “man” versus “woman” to him when he pointed to a picture of a woman and asked if she was a man. Looking back on it now, I believe he had in fact been processing the march in his own unique way, and was sharing his observations (like the fact that there were a LOT of women).

When he got his hot dog, he kept pushing it away. I noticed him gingerly touching the bun, and I asked, “Oh, bread off?” He responded, “Bread off, please.” I removed the bun, my friend put his hot dog on a fork, and he happily ate it.

As I walked back home about 20 minutes later after a goodbye hug and cheek kiss from the boy, I recalled how others responded to him. No one at the march gave him a dirty look if he accidentally stepped on their shoes. No one looked at him strange when he jumped up and down in excitement. In fact, people smiled at him…and they weren’t the “oh, poor you,” types of smiles. They were the “gotta love kids” smiles. I think that he felt that, because for the vast majority of the march, he was smiling and content (the only exception was when he got hungry).

I didn’t really have an endpoint to this, I just wanted to share a story that touches on this kiddo’s first time at a march, how calm he was, and how he charmed everyone around him. 🙂