Strategies to Reduce Self-Stimulation in Children with Autism

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson we'll be looking at strategies for classroom teachers to use to reduce self-stimulation in children with autism. By the end of the lesson you'll understand more about why children use this behavior and how to help them.

Understanding Self-Stimulation

Remember the last time you had to sit through a long, boring meeting? What did you do to pass the time? Most of us enter a long meeting attentive, but by the end of the first hour we may start to feel impatient. Some people tap their legs to pass the time, while others might doodle, pick at their nails, or twirl their hair.

Definition of Self-Stimulation

Although we may not realize it, these behaviors are all examples of self-stimulation, a characteristic of patients with autism that involves repetitive movements or sounds to stimulate the nervous system. The behavior has no end goal but simply involves repeating a movement or sound over and over.

Although we usually think of self-stimulation as an autistic behavior, the truth is we all do it from time to time. Anxious mothers wring their hands watching their children play in a big game, and even high-level executives tap their pencils on desks during meetings.

Many people use self-stimulation behaviors.
pencil tapping

However, for patients with autism, self-stimulation may take less socially acceptable forms like making loud, repetitive noises or even self-harm, such as scratching or biting. Self-stimulation behaviors like these can make it difficult for children to learn if they're pre-occupied with a behavior, or make friends. If this is the case, it may be desirable to reduce self-stimulation behaviors. Today, we're going to look at some strategies you can use in the classroom to address this issue.

Collecting the Data

All behaviors serve a purpose. Children throwing temper tantrums might be trying to communicate that they're hungry or tired, while teenagers putting their heads down might be trying to escape overwhelming emotions and thoughts. Self-stimulation behaviors are no different. Experts think that self-stimulation serves two main purposes for autistic students:

1.) To increase sensory input in a way they're unable to through natural behavior

2.) To self-soothe when sensory input is overwhelming

The first step to reducing any behavior is to understand the purpose of it for the child by documenting what is going on each time the behavior occurs. Let's look at an example.

Functional Behavior Assessment

Alejandro is a 4th grade student with autism in Ms. Lovez's classroom. Ms. Lovez notices that Alejandro has trouble staying seated throughout the school day. By the afternoon, Alejandro is rocking in his chair and pushing his body against the desk. These behaviors can be distracting for other students and inhibit Alejandro's learning, as he cannot pay attention as he rocks. Ms. Lovez starts a functional behavior assessment (FBA) for tracking the behaviors and the circumstances surrounding them to identify the function they serve for Alejandro. Then, she can implement a plan.

During Ms. Lovez's observations, she notices that on days that Alejandro has outdoor recess, he rocks less and is better able to focus on math. But on days that he has a long English language arts (ELA) class prior to math lessons, he rocks incessantly and is unable to do almost anything.

Identifying the Purpose

Based on the data Ms. Lovez has collected, she can infer that Alejandro is using the rocking to stimulate his proprioception. He desires more movement than what the school day allows for, so he creates it himself during inappropriate times.

Creating a Movement Plan

So, what should Ms. Lovez do? Ms. Lovez knows the rocking is too disruptive to continue, but she wonders if there are other forms of movement that Alejandro can use to increase his sensory input. Fidget chairs that move with a child are an effective option for including movement during seated lessons. She could also install an exercise ball or band under his desk, so he has something to discretely press against during lessons.

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