The stimming behaviors stereotypical of autism spectrum disorders take many forms, including rocking, spinning, making grunting noises, hand-flapping or sniffing people. Although stimming is a coping mechanism and a way for a child to self soothe, it’s a habit that other people don’t generally accept as normal behavior. AutismSD.com points out that, before you can reduce a child's stimming behaviors, you must help her learn alternative coping skills.
Nancy Konigsberg, a licensed occupational therapist, explains that applied behavior analysis can bring about positive behavior changes, particularly when working with children with autism spectrum disorders. In an effort to eliminate undesirable stimming behaviors, appropriate behaviors are rewarded and, therefore, reinforced. Each time a child displays an undesirable stimming behavior and you ask him to stop, he receives a reward if he stops the behavior.
Since a child uses stimming as a way to calm herself when she is stressed or frustrated, another option is to replace an undesirable stimming behavior with a more acceptable behavior. Konigsberg notes that although this approach often works for a younger child, replacing one stimming behavior with another isn’t always a practical option when a child gets older. Some stimming behaviors are socially unacceptable and may lead to a child being stigmatized and ridiculed by her peers. When trying to replace stimming with an alternative behavior, it’s important to choose an activity that will offer a child the same sensory input but may be more pleasing. Stimming alternatives also should be less noticeable to others.
Although medication can help reduce stimming behavior, a child usually needs behavioral therapy as well, according to an Autism Speaks interview with Dr. Dan Coury, a developmental behavioral-pediatrician and professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Ohio State University. Medications alone will not eliminate the behaviors. In an article published on the autism-help.org website, Dr. Stephen M. Edelson from the Center for the Study of Autism in Salem, Ore.,notes that it’s not known whether medications reduce stimming behaviors directly or simply act to slow a child’s motor movement. Doctors may prescribe medications to reduce anxieties which can lead to stimming behaviors.
The repetitive body movements often associated with stimming behaviors can become a problem when they interfere with learning and a child’s ability to pay attention. Physical exercise often works to redirect the behavior. An article published in the Northwest Arkansas Community Parent Resource Center’s newsletter explains that the beta-endorphins the body releases during vigorous exercise have an effect similar to stimming, reducing a child’s need to engage in self-stimulatory behavior.