Early on in a life with a child with autism, your child’s act of stimming can be uncomfortable to experience. Stimming is short for self stimulatory behavior or self stimulus. It’s a repetitive action such as making repetitive noises or general body movements. Hand flapping is a very common version of stimming. I read somewhere that it could be a child’s way of blocking excess incoming stimulus by creating their own outgoing stimulus. At any rate, many kids on the ASD spectrum do it, and at first, it can be alarming. It’s not a normal social action, so when it happens in public, it draws attention. The audible versions of stimming are particularily telling that something is different about the child. Many parents, including myself, are caught off guard when it starts happening in a public setting for the first time.
A decade later, I’ve grown to love it. In our case, Max’s stimming almost always manifests after he experiences something that brings him a lot of joy or excitement. His stimming is many times a result of a big dose of the things he loves in life. When Max is happy, the whole family is happy. His stimming is most often an indicator that things are going well.
The other night, we were taking a family boat ride on the river. Max usually has a pre-determined maximum speed he is willing to travel in the boat. He knows when I exceed that speed even when he can’t see the speedometer. I’m convinced he hears and feels the frequency of the motor and the water rushing under the boat differently than the rest of us. I know this primarily because he plugs his ears as soon as the engine revs slightly higher than that set speed.
After a brief escalated conversation between he and I on the safety of what’s happening, he resigns to the fact that we have a new maximum speed threshold. Then the stimming starts. He purses his lips, moves up and down in his seat, and wrings his hands – over and over. It’s all done with the look that resembles half fear and half joy. When we slow back down, we talk about it, and the smiles and stimming continue.
It manifests itself in many different ways depending on what the stimulus is. There are tons of things that get him going.
It was a little uncomfortable for me, especially in public, when it first started happening. Today, though, is different. I know why it’s happening, and I know that the reason behind it most of the time is a good one. Sometimes, I’ll walk through the house and catch him stimming. I’ll stop and ask, “What are you thinking about, buddy?” The answer I get is usually one of about four or five typical responses – all things that bring him joy.
Don’t fear the stimming. It’s going to be weird at first. It may take a while to determine what triggers it and if it’s a good reason or not. But there is a high likelihood that the information you receive after you learn more about your child’s stimming process will be very important in knowing how to operate life in your family. The knowledge of how your child responds to outside stimulus will be an asset, so pay close attention.