I was strolling in the park, and I saw a child with autism who was playing with his mother and brother. Out of nowhere, a speeding ambulance passed by with its siren on, and the child suddenly sat down rocking his body back and forth, mumbling something repeatedly like a chant, and he hit his head with his hand. His mother immediately ran to him and tried to calm him. It took a while, but she was able to appease him while his brother was trying to distract him, too, so he would stop his rocking and hitting.
It’s not the first time I saw something like that, so I just sat there and observed. But other parents and children playing at the playground thought he was a retard and got afraid, but his mother tried to explain that he was a kid with autism, and is very sensitive to noises. He does not intend to hurt anyone.
As a psychiatrist, I tried to do my part to help this family by talking to the people there and assuring them that it’s nothing alarming.
Our Noisy World
For people (children or adults) with autism, the world is an overwhelmingly crazy raucous place. The loud noises, the lights, the busy streets, and crowded restaurants make them feel nervous, anxious and sometimes afraid. They have this sensory integration disorder where they tend to avoid stimuli or seek stimuli to circumvent other sensations that make them feel anxious. Their everyday lives are very much affected by these sensory issues. “Often, kids, teens and adults on the spectrum spend a lot of time trying to be “normal”, fighting sensory overload and overwhelm, fending off personal quirks, and trying so hard to “fit in”,socially and otherwise.” Karla Helbert, LPC, E-RYT, C-IAYT also expalins.
You will notice that people with autism have social, speech, nonverbal communication difficulties, learning differences, and repetitive behaviors.
“It is important to help people with autism notice when they are stuck on details. Over time they can get in the habit of recognizing when they are focused at the detail level and learn to zoom out to see the big picture.” –John Strang, Psy.D.
These body motions they repeatedly do, and the repetitive movement of objects are self-stimulatory behaviors or what they call in autism language as stimming. Nothing is definite why they do it, but researchers suggest that such repetitive movements arouse their nervous system to produce certain chemicals called endorphins which are responsible for increasing their pleasure sensations, just like how exercise helps reduce our stress or how sniffing certain aromas lift our moods.
Types Of Stimming
- Tactile stimming is the use of the sense of touch or mannerisms of the hands.
– Opening and closing of fists
– Finger twisting or flicking
– Rubbing or scratching either with hands or objects
– Wringing of hands
- Visual stimming is the use of the sense of sight.
– Staring or gazing at the ceiling or lights or any objects
– Blinking repetitively or turning lights on and off
– Moving fingers to and fro in front of the eyes
– Eye tracking or looking from the corner of the eyes
– Lining up objects or arranging them constantly
– Hand flapping
- Auditory stimming is the use of the sense of hearing and sound.
– Humming, murmuring, or high-pitched screaming
– Tapping the ears or other objects
– Covering and uncovering the ears
– Finger snapping
– Repetitive speech, like repeating lyrics of a song, passages from a book, or lines in the movies
- Vestibular stimming is the sense of movement and balance.
– Body rocking front to back or side to side
– Spinning around
- Olfactory/taste stimming is the use of the sense of smell and taste.
– Smelling people or objects
– Tasting things by putting them in the mouth
Complications Of Stimming
Although this may not apply to everyone, there is some form of stimming that can be dangerous and physically harmful like the banging of their head, hands, legs, and objects.
Stimming may also interfere with their learning abilities and social interaction with others. It may cause them to be socially isolated and restricted from doing stuff they love to do.
“Autism is a result of neurological differences in the structure of the brain that distinguish it from what we call the neurotypical brain. It is not mental illness or a personality disorder.” –Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC