Definition of Stim (Urban Dictionary, by Cyndi, H. Apr 17, 2006):
Stim, stims or stimming is short for “self stimulation.” Almost everyone does it (tapping feet, cracking knuckles, twiddling thumbs), but in autistic people these behaviors are more pronounced and may seem downright strange. Autistic people often engage in stimming when they are stressed, to self regulate and sometimes to express emotion.
Common autistic stims are: rocking back and forth, headbanging (not the music kind), finger flicking/rippling, spinning, humming, repeating words or sounds and complex body contortions.
Living with Stim
Unless you live with autism and stims, it is impossible to wrap your head around the above definition. And even if you live with certain stims, you will not understand the stims of others. There are common threads of course, but no two people are alike, so the motivation behind stims and the meaning of stims can have astounding variation.
My purpose in writing this series is to share what I have learned about my daughter Beth’s stims. I want to spread the word that stims are not scary, and, in fact, they can be quite informative. If I had stopped my daughter’s stims, I believe it would have had negative implications (for example, increased stress and conversion to less obvious stims that were harder for me to interpret). To me stim is just a neurological difference, and it is my job to understand her stims and figure out what she is trying to say to me and how the stim is helping her. After I understand the purpose of a stim, it becomes a form of communication from my child to me, and I can sometimes use the stim for her developmental growth.
Over time, understanding and using the stims to help my child has become much easier. Many stims seemed all-consuming in the past and she seemed unreachable while stimming. But now, at age 5, Beth hears me and responds to requests during stimming, which allows me to join with her in stim-related toys and activities.
So, with the above background in mind, I will start my series on “respecting the stim” with sticky stuff.
Stickers on the Fingers, Hands, & Lips
I tried to use stickers to teach Beth preschool and language concepts when we quit intensive therapy and began homeschooling a year ago. I bought highly motivating sticker books with her favorite characters and was excited to use her “sticker stim” as a teaching tool. But the idea completely backfired. All Beth cared about at that time was repetitively sticking the stickers to her fingers, hands, and lips. I would try to guide her during the sticker book activity and she was so preoccupied with the stickers, it was as if she could not register a thing I said. I tried to limit the surface area and duration of the sticking, and told her to pinch the sticker instead and quickly directed her to “stick it on the paper” before she could stick the sticker elsewhere on her fingers, hands, and lips. I had marginal success with that approach, and usually Beth just ended up frustrated because I was interrupting her stim. In my final attempt, I hoped that if we worked with sticker books a lot, the stim would decrease due to desensitization. After working with the sticker books for hours a day for a few weeks, the sticker stim showed no decrease and I decided using stickers to teach was impossible.
One day a clerk at a store gave Beth a sticker, and I noticed how much Beth loved them and how calm she seemed while repetitively sticking the sticker on her fingers, hands, and lips (the latter always seems to take people aback [“OMG, not on your lips!”], but I just make a joke and brush by the comments now). Soon I traveled with packs of stickers in my purse, and they were a useful tool to help Beth relax in stores and they kept her occupied while waiting in restaurants. For a long time, her sticker stim was a very helpful tool for Beth’s relaxation, but I was unable to teach her concepts using stickers (or anything else with a sticky property, like glue)*.
The Sticker Stim Sweet Spot
Recently I was cleaning out a drawer and found those old sticker books. Things have changed a lot with Beth’s stims since we had problems with the sticker books. Is it possible to use them now? Here is a video tape of our recent attempt with a sticker book:
There is still stim with the stickers, and I have to guide Beth to do the activity, but she is engaged and working with me. I like to think we are hitting the “sticker stim sweet spot” in that the stickers are relaxing and motivating, but they not all-consuming. A lot has changed in a year, so it is hard to say if it is the stim effect (or appeal?) itself that is decreasing, or if her ability to filter the environment, integrate senses, and pay attention have increased while the stim effect has stayed the same. Whatever it is, this will be a common theme in this series. What was once a total preoccupation with a stim with no possibility of interaction is now an opportunity for interaction and learning for us.
I have no idea if this is a common developmental path for all stims for all kids who have autism, but it would be nice to see more research in this area. If it turns out that stims nearly always calm down like Beth’s did, that information would be very helpful to parents who are desperately trying to reach their young children who are stimming a lot. Maybe parents can take comfort in the knowledge that the stims will calm and that they can be an important tool for interaction and development in the not too distant future.
*If I had it to all over again, I would have used more magnet and vinyl play sets when we first started and just avoided the sticky stim during teaching. I am using these sets now and they are fantastic. Note: For the Smethport and Imaginetics sets, the magnets are not super strong and you have to be very careful punching them out (and your child or client might try to tear them).
Create-A-Scene by Smethport (do a search for Create a Scene on Amazon for more sets):
Imaginetics Sets (do a search for Imaginetics on Amazon for more sets):
Magnetic tins example:
Magnetic dolls example:
Vinyl Sticker Sets/ Vinyl Wall Clings / Colorforms sets (just a few examples, more on Amazon):