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Dealing with Self-Stimulation Behaviors in Kids on the Autism Spectrum

"What can be done about  an autistic child (high functioning) who does things repeatedly like rocking back and forth, spinning and flipping objects, making strange vocal noises over and over again? This constant non-stop behavior can be so annoying (and embarrassing) at times."

Most of our "leisure activities" are nothing more than self-stimulation behaviors that have become highly ritualized over time and made socially acceptable. There is nothing intrinsically valuable or reasonable about leisure pursuits such as bungee jumping, playing cards, dancing, playing video games, listening to music, smoking, etc.

People participate in these different activities because they find them to be pleasurable and because the activities alter their physical state. Each activity provides us with a particular type of sensory input.

There is not necessarily a great difference in so-called self-stimulation behaviors in children with autism spectrum disorders and some of these activities, beyond the fact that some are more socially acceptable and "normal" in appearance than others. 

Most parents find that their child with ASD or High-Functioning Autism is more likely to participate in self-stimulatory behaviors when he or she is idle or stressed. Interacting with your child in some way may break up the self-stimulation. If the behavior appears in response to stress, finding ways to help him relax (e.g., massage, being wrapped up in a quilt, etc.) may reduce the amount of time spent in the behavior you find inappropriate or harmful. If your child is left alone; however, it is likely he/she will re-engage in this activity as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

Some behaviors may present problems because they are considered socially inappropriate. These behaviors can be used as a way to explore the child's preferred sensory channels for receiving information from the world. With this information, parents may identify preferred sensory experiences around which they can develop more "mainstream" leisure activities that their children will also come to view as "leisure" (e.g., if the youngster enjoys the visual sensation of lights, find age-appropriate toys that can be motivating to him).

Take time to observe the types of self-stimulation that your child participates in - and when this behavior occurs. Watch him or her and make notes about what you see and when you see it. Then try to see if there is any pattern to these behaviors that would give you insight to the type or types of stimulation he/she prefers and the purpose it serves.

At the same time, note what types of activities your youngster finds aversive. When you have a good understanding about his or her preferences, begin to brainstorm ways that you can offer other stimulatory activities, modify or expand on the preferred self-stimulation.

Look at children of the same age, and try to find toys or activities that may make the self-stimulatory behavior appear more "normal." Sometimes your child's favorite self-stimulation activity can be modified or expanded in a way that will make it more socially acceptable.

As one mother with Asperger's herself states, "I totally agree, it can be annoying, even embarrassing at times, but they cant help themselves. Its part of the acceptance we as parents have to do. Ive even had to go to counseling myself. My child's father was so ashamed that he left. If u really love ur child, u have to just deal with it minute by minute & second by second. I personally am blessed to have 2 adult children that are always willing to watch my son for a few hours to give me a break. Ill be praying for all the other aspergers parents out there cuz we understand all too well what that missing puzzle piece means."
Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

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