- Posted by Dr. Eric Lund
- On October 6, 2015
- 0 Comments
- autism, child with autism, children with autism, self-soothing
Self-soothing repetitive behaviors do occur in typically developing children. Often it is a good strategy is to just ignore the behavior and it will go away fairly soon. Self-soothing repetitive behaviors can also be a sign of autism. In this blog post we will discuss reasons behind self-soothing repetitive behavior. Be sure to also read the follow up on this post for tips on how to address these behaviors.
Complete the Pediatric Development Screener to determine if autism should be a significant concern.
This blog was originally posted in 2012. We have updated and revised it to reflect further thoughts on the topic.
Why does my child repeatedly do the same body movements or noises? Many children on the autism spectrum exhibit self-soothing repetitive behaviors, also called self-stimulatory behaviors or “stimming”. These self-stimulating behaviors mainly occur for four reasons:
- Relieve muscle restlessness – Coordinated gross motor movements such as repetitive hand flapping, rocking or pacing often relieves muscle restlessness.
- Sensory feedback – Vocalization may relieve oral motor restlessness and provide soothing auditory feedback.
- Block out unwanted sensory stimulation – Familiar environments, familiar activities, symmetry, or anything that decreases the demand for attention can reduce unwanted sensory stimulation.
- Motor control issues – Gross, fine and oral motor skill building can decrease self-soothing repetitive behaviors caused by muscle control issues
These behaviors occur much more often when a child is not concerned about pleasing other people. Children display many more self-soothing repetitive behaviors when their behavior is controlled by their basic human needs and the sensory/motor world around them. As we move a child toward being controlled more by the social/verbal world self-soothing repetitive behaviors begin to fade.
A general strategy to reduce stimming is to:
- Help the child become more productive at self-soothing
- Help shape the self-soothing behavior to become more socially appropriate
- Teach a child enjoyable, complex behaviors
Why do we discourage stimming behaviors?
- Problematic self-soothing repetitive behavior is behavior that will not lead to social integration and acceptance. We don’t want the behavior to increase the gap between the child and their peers or interfere with functioning. At this point we want to develop a plan to move toward more socially productive behavior.
- A young child who pushed a toy lawn mower repeated was able to cut lawns with a real lawnmower by age 8 and then by age 10 he was able to cut neighbor’s lawns and made a good income compared to peers.
- A child who flapped spoons all day was directed toward playing the drums.
One five-year old girl, who had a number of sensory sensitivities, would lie on the floor and rub her pelvis into the floor often which was distressing to her family.
Getting her hair brushed was a less desirable experience so a routine of brushing her hair for 5 seconds every time she began to rub her pelvis into floor was implemented.
Rubbing her pelvis on the floor became predictive of hair brushing.The end result was that she no longer rubbed her pelvis on the floor, and she became comfortable with the brushing of her hair.
The goal is to change the unwanted behavior into a behavior that is more socially appropriate. We always want a child to learn new and more socially productive ways to get their needs met.
Place social interaction into the current self-soothing behavior
A child likes to line up toys (self-soothing repetitive behavior that takes advantage of repetition and symmetry to decrease attentional demands). This is done by the child to escape the social world of having to relate to other people.
We join with the child in the activity by handing the toys to the child, assisting in the behavior of lining up toys, the child has to relate socially to continue the self-soothing repetitive behavior.
As this occurs it becomes more enjoyable to interact socially and the repetition starts to decrease.
Improve gross and fine motor abilities
- Teach the child adaptive-skills, sports activities, preschool games, and toy play to give the child a wider behavioral repertoire. We will specifically try to teach skills that will take advantage of the self-soothing repetitive behavior with the goal of giving the child a higher-level option to self-sooth.
All of these strategies are based on the premise that social interaction and affiliation is productive for the child and allows them to fit in with their peers. Our goal is to shape minimally productive, odd, or ritualistic behaviors toward more productive behaviors. Self-soothing repetitive behaviors can be changed easily using a number of behavioral strategies.
To learn more about self-soothing repetitive behavior and how to soothe your child read part two, Soothing a Child on the Autism Spectrum.
If you are interested in learning more about the Autism Therapy offered by Caravel Autism Health or would like to schedule an evaluation, please Email or call 844-583-5437.