Stimming – Understanding Behaviours in Autism

Stimming Autism Treatment

Stimming in autism or self-stimulating behaviours include flapping, finger flicking, rocking back and forth, jumping, pacing back and forth, mouthing objects and repetitive noises. Biomedical treatment of autism evaluates the underlying cause(s) of stimming behaviour in autism.

What does the term “stimming” mean and why is stimming treatment important? The term “stimming” is short for self-stimulatory behaviour and is sometimes termed “stereotypic” or “self-stimulating” behaviour. In children with autism, stimming often refers to behaviours like rocking, hand flicking or hand flapping. Stimming is a symptom of autism and is often the most obvious symptom. Stimming treatment is a significant focus in biomedical treatment.

Recent research suggests that autism is not simply a mental health issues but rather a complicated neurobiological disorder resulting in many autistic behaviours like stimming. Treatment for stimming helps improve quality of life for children with autism and as a result opens up opportunities for developmental gains.

Children with autism are often overwhelmed by stimuli and their brains are often unable to effectively process the information from the outside world.  It is important to realize that sensory overload is a key cause of stimming or self-stimulating behaviour.  Treatment of stimming in autism means assessing and treating the cause of sensory overload. To put it another way, a decreased ability to process information results in increased physical action in an attempt to “self stimulate” the brain to a higher level of processing. Stimming behaviour can take many forms including.

Examples stimming and other autistic behaviours:

  • Hand flapping
  • Head shaking
  • Flicking fingers
  • Jumping
  • Running
  • Staring at lights
  • Repetitive blinking
  • Moving fingers in front of eyes
  • Tapping ears
  • Snapping or rubbing fingers together
  • Making vocal sounds
  • Rocking back and forth  -OR- side to side
  • Rubbing skin with hands or object or scratching
  • Putting hands, body parts or objects in their mouth
  • Smelling or licking objects

Research is changing the way we understand autism and stimming treatment:

Recent research is changing the way that medical professionals are viewing ASD. It is important to realize that the traditionally held view that autism is a mental health issue is being challenged by new information about alterations in biochemistry and physiology in children with autism.  In other words, autistic behaviours and stimming is a form of communication.  Biomedical treatment, or treatment focusing on increasing the developmental potential for every child, focuses on increasing assessing and treating biochemical and physiological abnormalities. For instance, the methylation cycle, a cycle that happens in every cell in the body, is the target of extensive research.  Studies have shown that increasing the “fuel” to the brain by supporting the methylation cycle, results in increased language development.  When a baby is conceived, they are de-methylated.  As methylation occurs, so does methylation. Methylation governs development for babies and consequently for children with autism.

To put it another way, by supporting the methylation cycle with B12 injections results in dramatic changes in language and communication. Improving methylation helps to treat stimming in autism.

Stimming Treatment

Temper Tantrums:

Like stimming behaviours, temper tantrums or outbursts are very difficult for parents and children.  Tantrums occur more frequently in children with ASD and are often one of the most concerning autistic behaviours. Of course, the key to helping children who are having frequent tantrums is to attempt to understand “what they are trying to say”.  Tantrums are a form of communication.  Tantrums, like stimming often occur when children are overwhelmed. Being that children with ASD often have impaired communication which can increase the frequency or intensity of tantrums. We know that many children with autism understand much more than they are able to express verbally.  As a result, children with autism become very frustrated. As the level of frustration rises, so does a child’s propensity for tantrums.

From a biomedical perspective, the most effective strategy is to help Increase a child’s ability to communicate his or her needs.  Research has shown that biomedical intervention can increase language and communication capacity in children with autism while reducing autistic behaviours like stimming and temper tantrums.  The CORE 4 biomedical treatments for autism include B12 injections, cod liver oil, dietary intervention and a high dose multi-vitamin. The CORE 4 treatments reduce stimming and tantrums.

Digestive Pain causes stimming in autism:

“Surveys published in the gastroenterology literature have stated that gastrointestinal problems, such as chronic constipation or diarrhea, occur in 46% to 85% of children with ASDs.”

Journal of Pediatrics – Scott M. Myers, MD

Many children with autism have digestive issues ranging from mild to severe.  Constipation, diarrhea, bloating and pain are all an unfortunate but a common reality for many children with autism.  Digestive issues can be caused by a number of different factors and contribute to stimming and other autistic behaviours. It is, therefore, important to have your child evaluated by a medical professional trained in treatment the physical aspects of autism spectrum disorder to address chronic digestive issues.

Posturing is when a child seeks relief from stomach or abdominal pain by leaning into something solid like furniture.  Children with pain often lean on couches, chairs, tables or lie on the ground, in an effort to put pressure on the abdominal area.  Posturing can look like stimming and is a sign of an underlying bowel problem and often leads many autistic behaviours:

Causes of digestive discomfort are varied and include:

  • Food allergies
  • Nutrient deficiencies
  • Infection
  • Inflammation
  • Enzyme deficiency
  • Dysbiosis – or an imbalance in the good bacteria of the digestive tract
  • Yeast overgrowth
  • Essential fatty acid deficiency

Head Banging, like stimming has it’s roots in an untreated medical problem:

Head banging is one of the most upsetting autistic behaviours. From a biomedical perspective, head banging is considered a sign or symptom of an underlying problem and is caused by many of the same things as stimming. Pain and neurotransmitter imbalance are therefore two common causes of both head banging and stimming. Children with pain will hit their heads in an attempt to decrease chronic pain signals to the brain.  Head pain can be caused by many different factors.  Inflammation is a common cause of head pain or headaches.  The intestines regulate inflammation and digestive problems can cause or contribute to head pain.  Assessing digestive issues is an important component of comprehensive biomedical treatment for behavioural issues.

Brain Chemicals, Stimming and Autistic Behaviours:

Autism research has shown that levels of certain neurotransmitters are associated with stimming and self-injurious behaviour, like head banging.  Neurotransmitters are the way the brain communicates with itself and the rest of the body. An imbalance of neurotransmitters can cause children to “bang” or “hit” their head in an attempt to self regulate these important brain chemicals.

Regulation of neurotransmitters in the brain is very complex.  Production of many neurotransmitters relies on a healthy digestive tract, so assessment and treatment of digestive dysfunction is imperative.  Other nutritional strategies include regulating the methylation cycle, which not only promotes development but also regulate important neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine resulting in a reduction in autistic behaviours.

In Summary:

As more research is done on the physiology and chemistry of children with autism, more will be found about why children with autism display so many autistic behaviours like stimming.  It is important to understand what puts children at risk for developing behaviours that have a significant impact on quality of life.  In the meantime, there are treatments that can dramatically reduce or eliminate behaviours that have their roots in altered biochemistry, physiology or digestive imbalance.