Language Development: 5 Tips on How to Handle Stimming

by Rachel

in Language Development

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on Pinterest

Flapping hands, spinning, opening and closing doors, and saying the same words over and over again can try the patience of even the most tolerant parents. These behaviors, which are called self-stimulatory behaviors or “stimming” for short, are actually quite common in children with delays in language development.

Sometimes, though, they can be disturbing to watch, or interfere with your child’s ability to interact with the world around her.

What should you do? Is it best to let your child stim whenever she likes? Or should you put a limit on how and where she stims? And how do you help your child engage in more purposeful behavior?

Read on for 7 tips on how to handle stimming in the child with weak language development:

1) Turn involuntary action into voluntary action.

Ever watch a person with a facial tic? Calling their attention to it usually makes it worse. But if you engage the other person so that they smile, the tic goes away. That’s because they are now using those muscles in a voluntary act.

When your child starts stimming, think what you can do to engage them in voluntary action. If your child is flapping their arms, gently take their hands, and swing their hands back and forth as you sing a song together.

If your child insists on opening and closing the door, stand on one side of the door, and pretend to knock, asking, “Can I come in?” Or, you can gently push on the door, with a confused look on your face when you meet resistance.

If your child insists on repeating a word or a phrase over and over again, try to add on a word to theirs. For example, if your child keeps repeating, “The car,” chime in “the red car,” or “the car honks.”

2) Help your child strengthen his motor and visual-motor systems.

Even children who are warm, engaged children, or intellectually bright can sometimes experience a “motor overflow” when they are excited or tired.

Make sure your child is receiving occupational therapy, and be consistent about doing assigned exercises. As your child gains control of his motor system, you’ll see a decrease in repetitive behavior. Some children manage to drop stimming altogether as their language skills and motor systems improve, while others maintain a moderate level of stimming, particularly when stressed or excited.

If your child is one of the latter, you can place limits on where they stim- for instance only at home- but you will have to accept that this fulfills some important need for them, and so they won’t be able to give it up completely. Although you might feel any level of stimming is unacceptable, when you consider how much of an impact learning and communication difficulties present for your child, this level of stimming should be last on your list.

3) Take it in small steps.

Your child is stimming not only because of motor or visual challenges, but also because stimming provides some level of emotional security. That means your child has a lot invested in their behavior.

You won’t be able to eliminate stimming in one fell swoop: not only will you fail miserably, but you’ll have a very angry, unhappy child as well. Instead, choose one specific behavior, and pick the time and place that the behavior is most disruptive, and start from there.

Limit the amount of time per day that you work on this particular goal – 15 minutes is a good start- and try to tie it with a specific activity. For example, you could decide not to allow stimming at bath time. That means that you are committing to redirecting your child’s actions, as explained above, so that your child has an alternate behavior he can engage in.

4) Solve the problem symbolically.

If your child can speak, talk with them about their behavior. What triggers it? Does it usually happen at certain times of the day? Choose a time when you are both calm, and be careful not to lecture or scold. Phrase your questions in a nonthreatening manner; “I was wondering” or “ I noticed,” are neutral statements you can use to bring up the subject.”

Talking about it helps them become more aware of the problem, and also helps them understand why you (and others) find the behavior so objectionable.

If your child is nonverbal, you can use toys or puppets to help your child talk about what’s going on. Have your puppet flap their arms, open and close doors, or engage in whatever stimming behavior your child does. When your child takes notice, you can stop, and ask the puppet, “Scared? Mad?” Turn to your child and give your child a chance to ask the puppet too.

5) Give your child extra together time.

Whenever you need to spend more time correcting your child, you need to balance it out with more together time. That’s because you need to make sure that positive interactions with your child occur about 90% of the time. Correcting your child’s behavior is considered a negative interaction, even if you do it lovingly.

Spending extra time with your child, however, is not only for your child’s sake – it’s for yours too! By making sure you have time just to enjoy them, you’ll be able to maintain a warm and loving environment for both of you.

Flapping hands, spinning, opening and closing doors, and saying the same words over and over again can try the patience of even the most tolerant parents.

These behaviors, which are called self-stimulatory behaviors or “stimming” for short, are actually quite common in children with delays in language development.

Sometimes, though, they can be disturbing to watch, or interfere with your child’s ability to interact with the world around her.

What should you do? Is it best to let your child stim whenever she likes? Or should you put a limit on how and where she stims? And how do you help your child engage in more purposeful behavior?

Read on for 7 tips on how to handle stimming in the child with weak language development:

1) Turn involuntary action into voluntary action.

Ever watch a person with a facial tic? Calling their attention to it usually makes it worse. But if you engage the other person so that they smile, the tic goes away. That’s because they are now using those muscles in a voluntary act.
When your child starts stimming, think what you can do to engage them in voluntary action. If your child is flapping their arms, gently take their hands, and swing their hands back and forth as you sing a song together.

If your child insists on opening and closing the door, stand on one side of the door, and pretend to knock, asking, “Can I come in?” Or, you can gently push on the door, with a confused look on your face when you meet resistance.

If your child insists on repeating a word or a phrase over and over again, try to add on a word to theirs. For example, if your child keeps repeating, “The car,” chime in “the red car,” or “the car honks.”

2) Help your child strengthen his motor and visual-motor systems.

Even children who are warm, engaged children, or intellectually bright can sometimes experience a “motor overflow” when they are excited or tired.

Make sure your child is receiving occupational therapy, and be consistent about doing assigned exercises. As your child gains control of his motor system, you’ll see a decrease in repetitive behavior.

Some children manage to drop stimming altogether as their language skills and motor systems improve, while others maintain a moderate level of stimming, particularly when stressed or excited.

If your child is one of the latter, you can place limits on where they stim- for instance only at home- but you will have to accept that this fulfills some important need for them, and so they won’t be able to give it up completely.

Although you might feel any level of stimming is unacceptable, when you consider how much of an impact learning and communication difficulties present for your child, this level of stimming should be last on your list.

3) Take it in small steps.

Your child is stimming not only because of motor or visual challenges, but also because stimming provides some level of emotional security. That means your child has a lot invested in their behavior.

You won’t be able to eliminate stimming in one fell swoop: not only will you fail miserably, but you’ll have a very angry, unhappy child as well. Instead, choose one specific behavior, and pick the time and place that the behavior is most disruptive, and start from there.

Limit the amount of time per day that you work on this particular goal – 15 minutes is a good start- and try to tie it with a specific activity. For example, you could decide not to allow stimming at bath time. That means that you are committing to redirecting your child’s actions, as explained above, so that your child has an alternate behavior he can engage in.

4) Solve the problem symbolically.

If your child can speak, talk with them about their behavior. What triggers it?

Does it usually happen at certain times of the day? Choose a time when you are both calm, and be careful not to lecture or scold. Phrase your questions in a nonthreatening manner; “I was wondering” or “ I noticed,” are neutral statements you can use to bring up the subject.”

Talking about it helps them become more aware of the problem, and also helps them understand why you (and others) find the behavior so objectionable.

If your child is nonverbal, you can use toys or puppets to help your child talk about what’s going on. Have your puppet flap their arms, open and close doors, or engage in whatever stimming behavior your child does. When your child takes notice, you can stop, and ask the puppet, “Scared? Mad?” Turn to your child and give your child a chance to ask the puppet too.

5) Give your child extra together time.

Whenever you need to spend more time correcting your child, you need to balance it out with more together time. That’s because you need to make sure that positive interactions with your child occur about 90% of the time.

Correcting your child’s behavior is considered a negative interaction, even if you do it lovingly.

Spending extra time with your child, however, is not only for your child’s sake – it’s for yours too! By making sure you have time just to enjoy them, you’ll be able to maintain a warm and loving environment for both of you.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on Pinterest

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathy Roman February 1, 2012 at 6:43 am

I just loved it! I know you can help. My daughter has stimming of holding straws, pencil, pens, spoons everything dangers to hurt her. Now in top of this she has a heavy breathing and jumping too. I am changing all the toys and objects that she can hurt herself. And to be honest I do not know what to do…. when she has heavy breathing I just say to her CALM, CALM and she breath normal again… about to hold things next to her eyes I have no idea how I can help her. I offer little dolls… I play with her other type of things to make her to forget stimming but it doesn’t work… Can I have a advice!!!

Thanks

Rachel February 2, 2012 at 12:10 am

Hi Kathy! Thanks for your comments. The trick to handling stimming is to remember that it’s only a symptom of something else. In the same way that a child’s tantrum can be due to tiredness or the inability to express themselves, stimming is the child’s response to dealing with stimulation that they find uncomfortable or don’t know how to deal with.

So you need to get to the root of why your child’s stimming – and in your case using dangerous items – in order to get any results. It sounds to me that she’s under more stress, especially since you mention about the heavy breathing and the jumping. I can think of a bunch of my clients who resort to stimming more frequently when they are upset.

Of course I have to say that some amount of stimming is to be expected. Having spoken to many autistic adults, they’ve explained to me that it’s often comforting for them to stim. At that age it was easier to set rules about when and where they could stim (in an effort to keep them engaged in their environment).

But for your daughter – how old is she?- I think you’re on the right track by helping her calm herself. I would use this proactively and help her do some calming things several times throughout the day – perhaps every 2-3 hours or so. Has she done a sensory diet? I’m not referring to brushing – I think that is intrusive to the point of painful to many autistic kids- but I would suggest jumping from a higher surface (for impact to the joints), carrying heavy things, or firm massage if she can stand it.

I would also keep an eye out for when you see her starting to get hyped up. Then when you know the clues that tell you she’s about to explode, you can intervene before it gets too bad. In addition, you can teach her to recognize what’s going (“I see you are starting to jump and breathe heavily. When you feel that way, then we should…”).

So to wrap it up in one sentence, the key is to prevent the situation that leads to the excessive stimming, rather than the stimming itself. (There is actually a way to help her stim less and engage more, using floor time, but that’s a post, so I’ll be doing a floor time series at some point in the next few weeks).

Hope this helps! I think you’ve given me another great idea for a post…

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: