To Stim or not to Stim?

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by Fiona Russo

Self-stimulatory behaviour – more commonly known as ‘stimming’ – is something that many children with disabilities engage in. 

It can take many forms – you name it, children do it. 

If stimming involves something outside the child’s own body – lining up toy cars, pressing buttons, turning pages of books etc – it can be easy to redirect the activity by taking the stimulus away. 

Of course, you may then have a child in full meltdown mode for your troubles. 

If, however, your child’s stimming is more intrinsic - rocking, twitching, hand flapping, hopping, stamping, flicking, teeth grinding, tongue waggling, headbutting, hair pulling etc – it is much harder to redirect the activity.

The experts are divided about this.

Some think that stimming is a coping mechanism that should not be taken away, and others believe that it is a barrier between children and the world around them and should be gently discouraged where possible. 

I come down somewhere between these two extremes.

In our case, Charlie’s stimming takes the form of a complicated hand gesture that ends with a flicking motion in her mouth. 

She uses both hands to achieve this manoeuvre and, on a bad day, does it nonstop. 

Because Charlie’s stimming involves so much hand-to-mouth activity, it limits her ability to participate in many activities. 

She can’t fingerpaint or collage because paint and glue end up inside her mouth. 

Beaches, playgrounds with chipbark floors, and sandpits are tricky places for us for the same reason. 

Some days, she even struggles to eat her food because the urge to stim is just too much. 

It’s also clear to us that stimming does represent a wall between Charlie and the world, because when she isn’t doing it she’s so much more ‘engaged’.

Physically, the stimming takes a toll. 

Charlie has an ulcer on her thumb and another in her mouth. 

In winter, her constantly wet hand gets wind-chapped and sore. 

This was the thing that finally forced a decision from us.

We decided that we would try to redirect her behaviour. 

We use small ‘splints’ (gentle material ones with boning inside) to stop her from bending her right elbow enough to get her fingers to her mouth. 

We could see immediately that this was a good decision for Charlie. 

She was not the least bit distressed by our attempts to stop her stimming – in fact, it sometimes seems as though she’s relieved to have the compulsion thwarted. 

We’ve been using the splint for about six months now, for a least part of every day. 

When she wears it, we see so much more of Charlie’s personality shine through. 

The trouble is, the minute we remove it, she’s back to stimming with a vengeance. 

That urge is just so strong! 

On the upside, her engagement with the world has improved so much that we do see the occasional choice being made within her to avoid the stimming so that she can do something she likes, whether it’s holding a toy or eating an ice cream. 

We have high hopes that these occasions will become more frequent as Charlie learns to manage her behaviour. 

Does your child stim? 

If so, are they very emotionally attached to the behaviour?

Does is hurt them (or others) physically?

Is it a problem in some other way? 

What do you think about redirecting the activity? 

I’d love to hear the thoughts of the disability community – all the experts in the world can’t replace the opinions of the people who live this every day. 

We all want the best for our children, and it becomes very complicated when the professionals are divided on the issues.

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