Child & Family Development Child & Family Development

August 13, 2021

Understanding Stimming

By: Danielle Peets, OTR/L

Stimming is often a sensory anchor that can assist with self-regulation, reducing anxiety, can be soothing and calming, promote attention, and allow children to feel organized in their nervous system. Parents often have questions about this behavior, including, what causes it and how to help their child. The following information offers answers to commonly asked questions about stimming and provides general ideas and strategies to try. It is important to note that every child is different and engages in this behavior for different reasons.

What does stimming look like?

Hand flapping, rocking, head banging, spinning objects, lining items up, jumping, spinning oneself, moving eyes in specific patterns, and vocalizations (i.e. humming, making noises, etc.) are all forms of stimming.

Why is my child engaging in these behaviors?

There are many different reasons why your child may be stimming…try to figure out why! Are they excited? Are they seeking a specific input (vestibular, proprioceptive)? Are they doing this more often in unfamiliar settings? Are they over-stimulated in challenging multi-sensory situations with bright lights, loud noises, etc.?

If it is a result of overstimulation, then consider providing the following sensory strategies.

  • Start with proprioceptive input, which is calming to the nervous system. Try a weighted vest, weighted backpack, or oral motor input.
  • Reduce auditory noises through earplugs and noise canceling headphones.
  • Try using social stories. Social stories can help your child become aware of what they are doing and ideas for things to do instead.

What should I do if stimming interferes with my child’s ability to get through their daily tasks or complete functional activities?

For example, your child may perseverate on lining up their cars, which can prevent them from playing and getting through daily tasks. So what can you do? Jump in and play with them to break it up. For example, you may choose to set up an obstacle course with the cars. Now your child is  getting the sensory movement but you are still allowing them to do something that makes them feel good (lining up their toys). Another idea might be to incorporate visual matching tasks, such as, matching the cars to colors or do a certain color first. Be sure to make it functional!

As a parent, if you have never tried to break up your child’s stimming behavior, you may find it VERY challenging at first. Some parents experience an emotional response or meltdown but it is important to try to stay calm. Empathize and understand that by trying to get your child to engage and use these cars in a different way, you are breaking up a routine and habit that they have which is hard for them.

Tips for redirecting self-stimulatory behavior:

  • Start small and then add more. Modify the activity and increase challenges as your child becomes more comfortable with you interfering.
  • Try hand over hand assistance and physical assistance to help the child engage/participate in the new task.
  • Use a visual schedule for new tasks you are trying to incorporate.
  • Music can be a helpful tool for challenging transitions.

What do I do if my child is spinning, rocking, and head banging?

If your child is participating in this type of stimming, they are most likely seeking intense vestibular and proprioceptive input. The following tips may be helpful in addressing this type of stimming behavior

  • Provide frequent movement breaks including heavy work
  • Provide a swing
  • Try a rocking chair
  • Encourage inverting the head
  • Encourage a hippity hop ball or therapy ball activities
  • Try a BOSU ball or mini trampoline

For more ideas on how to meet your child’s specific sensory needs, try working with an occupational therapist to assist in safe alternative sensory strategies.

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