How to Reduce Self-Stimulation Behaviors in Children With Autism

By Brenda Scottsdale
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It can be heartbreaking to watch your autistic child engage in odd, self-stimulating behaviors, such as snapping his fingers, putting non-food items in his mouth or sniffing people. There are two different theories as to why your child may self-stimulate: a brain dysfunction may be causing him to crave extra stimuli or he may be attempting to block out sensory overload in his environment. Despite the cause, the Autism Research Institute recommends parents try to reduce self-stimulating behaviors as these actions not only socially alienate your child, but also interfere with his attention and learning.

Exercise

Step 1

Encourage your child to engage in high-intensity aerobic exercise every day. A review of literature summarized in an article published in Physiotherapy Canada suggested that even in bursts as short as six minutes at a time, aerobic exercise decreased self-stimulation behaviors in autistic children.

Step 2

Follow the guidelines suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure your child's level of exercise is intense enough. The rule-of-thumb suggested by the CDC is that vigorous-intensity activity can be rated as a 7 or 8 on an exertion scale where 0 is his level of exertion while resting and 10 is the hardest she could physically push herself. For example, at a high level of aerobic intensity, her heart and breathing should be much more intense than when she's walking.

Step 3

Choose from several different types of exercise to find something that will challenge and interest your child. The CDC lists some examples of high-intensity aerobic behaviors appropriate for children including running and chasing games, such as tag, riding a bicycle, running or jumping rope.

Redirection

Step 1

Distract your child from engaging in socially alienating and potentially harmful forms of self-stimulation by suggesting socially appropriate alternatives. The Autism Research Institute recommends encouraging him to chew on a rubber tube, for example, rather than biting his arm.

Step 2

Ignore self-stimulating behaviors whenever possible to avoid reinforcing them. A research team led by Craig H. Kennedy, child development professor at Vanderbilt University, found that sometimes self-stimulating behaviors are more likely to reoccur if parents give their children more attention or remove them from unpleasant situations once they begin to self-stimulate.

Step 3

Reward positive behaviors, such as when you child remembers to tap her fingers together, rather than pinching herself. Rewards can include a smile, a verbal acknowledgement, allowing her to play with favorite toys or giving a small reward, such as a piece of candy.

Therapy

Step 1

Take your child to a pediatrician, who can conduct a thorough analysis of his issues. The first step, according to the website Medscape, is for the physician to conduct a physical examination identifying and treating any injuries your child has self-inflicted. Devices such as helmets or dental occlusal splints may be prescribed to prevent further injuries.

Step 2

Have your child-development professional conduct a behavioral assessment, consulting with other professionals, such as psychiatrists and psychologists as needed. Follow a formal behavioral plan, which establishes appropriate interventions, such as relaxation therapy and positive reinforcement. Give feedback on what works and what doesn't, to your child's treatment professional, so you can refine the plan over time, improving its effectiveness.

Step 3

Consider drug therapy if you and your physician aren't having success with behavioral conditioning. Your child's behavioral therapy may be augmented with medications such as naltrexone, which diminishes the euphoric feelings autistic children receive from self-stimulation.

About the Author

Brenda Scottsdale is a licensed psychologist, a six sigma master black belt and a certified aerobics instructor. She has been writing professionally for more than 15 years in scientific journals, including the "Journal of Criminal Justice and Behavior" and various websites.