My Favorite Color is Rainbow: The Beauty of Stimming
Author: Jessica DeRuiter RN, BSN
Stimming is the term used to describe a person’s self-stimulatory behavior. It is quite often seen as a disturbance that many people want to be able to control and actually teach ways to prevent it. The act of stimming is used as an outlet to express emotions, cope with the environment, and can be “productive, communicative, pleasurable and even socially valuable for those who perform them – as manifestations of difference, not symptoms of the deficit” (Bakan, 2014, p. 133).
When my son began this act of stimming, my husband was included in the population of people who saw it as disturbing. He had fears that our child would stand out and be seen as weird/strange to others. We were both afraid people would not understand why Harvey was acting out in that way.
We began to see the joy it brought Harvey and the situations in which he would practice this stimming behavior intentionally and not as part of a reflex. He began to stim before he had any other form of communication. He had no verbal skills, and at two years old, he was still not showing many signs that he understood as verbal language. At that time, and currently, Harvey continues to stim in the same manner. His body will tighten up, and he will get completely stiff with hands in fists at his side. He will also clench his teeth, and while shaking, make a repeated "eeee!" sound.
Stimming can be very individualized. Examples are included in the table below. The last example titled "garbage" is difficult for me to include, as I feel the name is not appropriate, but I only include it as it is part of the research and the part in which my own child falls.
“Drumming (dr): Repeatedly tapping a surface.
Hand Flapping (hf): Repeatedly shaking the hands.
Hand Striking (hs): Repeatedly striking the top of one hand.
Pacing (pc): Walking a path in a confined space.
Rocking (rk): Swaying back and forth while standing.
Spinning (sp): Spinning in circles while standing.
Toe Walking (tw): Walking with shortened steps up on the toes. Pacing can often occur while toe walking.
Garbage: Any activity not listed above. For most data collection sessions this involved sitting, standing, writing, hand motions involved with talking, and jumping.” (Westeyn., et al, 2005, p.2).
Many children and adults on the autism spectrum will perform one or many of the mentioned traits. None of which I see as abnormal or an act to be controlled. The child should be able to freely cope or respond in these ways so long as they are safe and not causing harm to themselves or others. Thes are a normal acts that do not need controlling but understanding from onlookers and scientists alike.
When these symptoms are observed, my advice is encourage your child to live freely and try to find a pattern or situation that causes the act of stimming. Try to understand if your child is doing it out of excitement, fear, boredom, an act of motion(car driving, ball bouncing), or a combination. In this way, the child may feel accepted, and you can help the child by acknowledging their feelings.
Now that Harvey has developed language, I can ask him what he is seeing/feeling at that time when he is stimming--he is always experiencing an overload of excitement. It is how his brain helps him process the excitement in a way he can understand. Just because I don’t fully understand the process doesn’t make the act wrong. It really is beautiful, and his joy brings me joy.
When you take away this outlet by any means, especially punishment, you remove an important coping mechanism and open the door for negative behaviors. The overwhelming feelings may cause a child to be destructive or violent in response to the overwhelming electrical/environmental stimulations they are feeling. If they are threatened and feel their natural response or sense of self is taken away, they may become angry or confused. Embrace your child’s difference and provide support by allowing the healthy, non-harmful stims to occur.
Bakan, M. B. (2014). The Musicality of Stimming: Promoting Neurodiversity in the Ethnomusicology of Autism. MUSICultures, 41(2), 133-161.
L. Westeyn, Tracy & Marsicano, Kristin & Bian, Xuehai & Starner, Thad & Abowd, Gregory. (2005). Recognizing Mimicked Autistic Self-Stimulatory Behaviors Using HMMs.. Ninth IEEE Int. Symp. On Wearable Computers. 2005. 164-169. 10.1109/ISWC.2005.45.