Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Do you twirl your hair, tap your fingers on the table, or bite your fingernails? If you do, then you partake in self-stimming (AKA self-stimulating behavior). Many children with developmental delays, poor sensory processing, autism spectrum disorders (ASD), visual impairments, or mental retardation "self-stim", too. It is when a person perseverates on a particular behavior repetitively. They are sometimes odd behaviors, but not always. Many children with special needs do these types of behavior when they are bored, over-whelmed, upset, sensory seeking, unable to motor plan how to do an activity, or just do the self-stimming just to do it. Many children will become upset if you try to stop them from doing the behavior. Some children self-stim so excessively it is obsessive-compulsiove.

The following are some common self-stimulating behaviors:

  • flicking fingers or waving hands in front of their face

  • spinning toys continuously

  • watching ceiling fan

  • staring at lights

  • staring at lines on the wall, floor tile, or within the furniture (e.g. legs of table)

  • shredding paper

  • pacing

  • rocking

  • spinning or swinging

  • head banging

  • teeth grinding

  • playing with spit or fingernails

  • acting out a movie scene or telling the same story repeatedly

  • repetition of odd noises including throat sounds

  • pinching or scratching self

A few ideas on how to stop or reduce the self-stimming behavior are:

  1. If the child is self-stimming because he is bored or a sensory seeker, then provide activities that provide sensory input such as jumping on a trampoline, rocking horse, ride-on toy, tunnel, finger paint, play-dough, musical toys or instruments, etc. Also, make sure to leave toys setting out in baskets or containers that are visible, because some kids won't play with toys that are stored away in closets or drawers.

  2. If the child is self-stimming because he is over-whelmed or upset, then figure out what could reduce his overloaded feeling. When he is upset because he can't express his needs or wants, then get ideas from his/her speech therapist. Also see the previous post this month on this blog on helping a child to talk if he is delayed in communication skills. If the child is upset because he is hungry or has another basic need, then help the child with it. If he is upset because he "Can't get his way", then hopefully working on behavior managment along with offering other things to do and play will help.

  3. If the child is self-stimming because he is unsure of what to do or unable to motor plan well, then help him with doing something else or redirect it. For example, if a child with limited play skills perseverates on jumping, then jump next to him and say "You must want to be a frog, ribbit, ribbit" and encourage him to imitate a frog. Then, after a few minutes change animals and see if he can imitate you. Doing this helps with the motor planning problem by showing him what else can be done.

  4. Some kids with limited play skills will only play with toys in simple ways. For example, mabye the child will only build blocks into a tower and become upset if asked to build a different structure. This can be slowly redirected such as to build a train next to his tower, and push the block train with "choo-choo" sounds. He may not build a train that day, but maybe will the next time you try this. Do not feed into the child's limited patterns of play! This is not helping his development in terms of cognition, social-emotional, language, or fine-motor skills. Teach him how to plan in other ways.

  5. You can also redirect self-stimming by providing a distraction.

  6. Be aware that some children will begin the self-stimming behavior as soon as you walk away. Others may stop the behavior you redirected but then gain a different self-stimming behavior; if that is the case, consider that the child needs more sensory input (AKA sensory diet) and is doing the self-stimming because he is a sensory seeker.

Often redirecting self-stimming or helping the child to play with toys in a new way requires a lot of thinking outside of the box and getting down on the floor to play with the child, such as with the DIR / floortime approach.

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