Pacing, clicking fingers and blinking hard are habits for many of us, but what does it mean for a child who is doing it repeatedly?
Stimming or self-stimulatory behaviour is a repetitive or unusual body movement or noise and can include twirling your hair, pacing or snapping fingers.
In a person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), stimming usually refers to more specific behaviours including hand flapping, rocking or spinning.
Paige Archard, a senior occupational therapist treating children with autism at the AEIOU Foundation, said stimming varied a lot from child to child.
“People with ASD will do it as they like the way it feels,” she told ABC Radio Brisbane.
“It could be because the environment they are in is overstimulated for them, and by focusing in on a movement or a way an object looks repeatedly is a way to help them deal with the stimulus in the environment.
“It could also be sensory seeking, so they want more sensory experience in their environment.”
There’s a little stimming behaviour in all of us
Ms Archard said subtler forms of stimming were often part of most people’s behaviour patterns.
She added that it was not just people on the autism spectrum who do it.
“It could be people shaking their leg, being a toe tapper or tapping a pencil — all are forms of stimming.
“You find yourself doing it and you stop, it’s not bad, but you do it because you too like the way it feels.
“When we’re young we do stim as a small child, but as you develop you find other things that are reinforcing.”
Ms Archard said the difference between autistic and typical stimming was the type or frequency of the behaviour.
“Often it can be hand flapping where children are moving their hands repeatedly,” she said.
“It could be auditory as well by putting their hands over their ears and hum and repeat it over and over again.
“It could be verbal, which we call scripting, where it’s nursery rhymes or songs.”
For comfort or to feel safe
For people with ASD, some stimming can provide comfort and self-regulation and help them to feel safe in a situation.
“Children with ASD don’t necessarily find other things that are reinforcing in their environment and that’s how we try and help.”
Ms Archard said the difference between people with ASD stimming and adults who tapped their fingers was that adults knew when to break the stim and do something else.
“At AEIOU, we don’t stop it [stimming] directly but we look at the reason why a person is engaging in it,” she said.
“We might then teach them other functional activities to play or teach them how to engage in social experiences to help.”
Can stimming become dangerous?
In extreme cases, self-injury stimming can become an issue for children.
“If children bite themselves repetitively or head bang, then things need to be looked at,” Ms Archard said.
“In those situations, it’s about looking at why they are doing that and teaching them how to do something else instead.”
Ms Archard said working with occupational therapists and other professionals skilled in behaviour interventions could help.
“What we find when we work with children who are playing, is that children will still engage in the stimulatory behaviour but it won’t be for such a long period of time.
“They will find something else they can do that is reinforcing and it can break that stim and can redirect themselves to something different.”