As humans, all of our behaviors occur for 4 main functions: to gain access to something, to escape or avoid something, to gain attention from someone, or because they feel good. For the last category of behaviors, we refer to them as self-stimulatory behaviors. This means they are behaviors we engage in that stimulate our senses or make us feel good inside. They include things that we enjoy looking at, things we enjoy smelling, things that give us oral stimulation, or things that physically feel good.
We all have self-stimulatory behaviors. They are not unique to someone diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), even though someone diagnosed with Autism may do them at a higher frequency than those without ASD. We all enjoy receiving sensory input in our unique ways. Engaging in self-stimulatory behavior is very enjoyable and can even be very calming, so it isn’t uncommon to see an increase in self-stimulatory behavior when we are nervous or upset.
We all have self-stimulatory behaviors. They are not unique to someone diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), even though someone diagnosed with Autism may do them at a higher frequency than those without ASD.
Self-stimulatory behaviors are often unique to each individual, meaning that what feels good to one person may not feel as good to someone else. However, there are some common ones out there. These include twirling your hair, shaking your foot/leg, chewing gum, or fidgeting with jewelry. Individuals with ASD may engage in different topographies (i.e. forms) than those without ASD. Those topographies may include looking at items from a certain angle, putting things in their mouths, smelling things that are not intended to be smelled, or persistent hand flapping.
Self-stimulatory behaviors can also be perseverative behaviors with a specific interest or topic. For instance, someone may be insistent on watching all of the movies in a specific series over and over, reading the same book repetitively, or talking about the same topic with their friends. Some perseverative interests could also include obtaining things/doing things that involve a preferred character or wearing clothes with a certain type of fabric.
When individuals with ASD engage in self-stimulatory behaviors, we should not automatically assume that we need to reduce those behaviors. As stated previously, everyone engages in these behaviors. And as Alex said in her article about the treatment of automatic behaviors:
ABA recognizes every individual's needs to be themselves, and does not infringe on self expression. This world is interesting because of all of our contributions to it, and ABA does not stifle the automatic behaviors that make us “us”.
From personal experience, we all most likely know that it is not disruptive to talk to someone who is twirling their hair. We also know that you can attend to a teacher just as easily (if not better) when you tap your foot in the air repetitively. As a general rule, as long as the self-stimulatory does not prevent the individual from learning, engaging socially in their environments, or being safe, we should allow the individual to continue to engage in that behavior. Even if the topography of the self-stimulatory behavior appears odd to outsiders, such as flapping your hands repetitively or making certain sounds, as long as the individual can still learn, engage socially, and be safe, then it is not disruptive and should therefore not be reduced.
However, some self-stimulatory behaviors need to be decreased since they do prevent the child from learning, engaging socially, or being safe. An individual who engages in loud vocalizations repetitively misses learning opportunities since they cannot hear others. Someone who perseverates on orange may not be able to engage with peers if they are (or are not) wearing orange. And someone who puts things in their mouth for oral stimulation may cut themselves or get ill often. If you are wondering if the self-stimulatory behavior needs to be decreased, observe your child engaging in it and see if it prevents them from learning, engaging socially, or from being safe. If the answer is yes then the behavior needs to be decreased.
Everyone deserves to feel good in their own skin!
Self-stimulatory behaviors will not go away on their own. Since they feel good to do, telling someone to stop will likely not be enough. In order to reduce a self-stimulatory behavior, we either need to teach the individual to do something else that feels good that is more appropriate, or teach the individual to regulate that behavior by only engaging in that behavior in a specific environment. Generally speaking, if you would like to replace the self-stimulatory behavior, try first to see if you can pick a behavior that involves the same sense. For instance, if a child mouths items, try to replace their item with a chewie, chewing gum, or with snack foods that might provide the preferred sensation (e.g. baby carrots, pretzel rods, etc.). If this is not possible, you can always select a behavior that utilizes a different sense, but keep in mind that it may take longer to teach the child to do that behavior instead of their original self-stimulatory behavior.
If the self-stimulatory behavior needs to only be reduced in specific environments, you can teach the child to go to the appropriate environment in order to do that behavior. For instance, if it is socially inappropriate for a child to rock back and forth in their seat in the classroom, they could learn to ask to go the corner where they can rock back and forth.
Don't forget, if there's a behavior you can't quite figure out the function of, or if you're concerned that a behavior may cause disruption in your child's life, talk with your BCBA and RBT! Together, you can work on a plan that will give your child the tools to live their best life! The main thing to remember with self-stimulatory behaviors is that we all want to feel good and we all do things in order to feel good. Our self-stimulatory behaviors keep us happy and allow us to feel good in our skin, even in situations that can make us nervous or upset. Just because a self-stimulatory behavior looks atypical does not mean it needs to stop happening. Everyone deserves to feel good in their own skin!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Olivia S. – M.A., BCBA
Olivia is a board-certified and state-licensed Behavior Analyst with experience and a passion for working with the pediatric population. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Certificate in Childhood and Adolescent Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. During her undergraduate career, Olivia also volunteered at the Behavior Research and Therapy Lab on campus, which focused on working with individuals with Tourette Syndrome and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders. She earned her Master of Arts in Applied Behavior Analysis from Ball State University. Olivia has spent the past ten years providing early intervention behavior analytic services in-home and in-center for children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in the greater Milwaukee area.