We do not stop our autistic children from stimming, as we know it is an involuntary way for our children to regulate. We want our children to have a safe way to manage emotions and release sensory overload.
Stimming is typically a positive experience with no harmful or negative behavior, but when anxiety builds, stimming can turn violent.
Why Stimming Turns Violent
When an autistic child’s behavior leaps from normal stimming to aggression, typically it is a sign that the child is having problems with self-regulation. This might look like a meltdown, but when it turns violent, it can include unhealthy and harmful stims (towards self and others), such as hair pulling, biting, slapping, banging of the head against something, or the picking of areas around the fingernails.
Common medical issues can also prompt self-injurious behaviors. The shortlist of conditions that can provoke aggressive stimming is inflammation (allergies, drug reactions, food intolerances), dental problems (new teeth, cavities, gum issues), stomach or digestion issues, as well as headaches and other body pain.
Pain is unique in the manner that it supersedes much of what we feel and sense. When we (neurotypical adults) feel pain, and especially when it increases (think of a toothache or a migraine headache), it prioritizes above everything else. It can feel intolerable. It can feel as if it consumes our entire body. We do not adjust to the pain, and our nervous system continues to send out signals of pain until we find relief. We head to the dentist, or we reach for a pill that gives us relief.
In our children, especially those that are autistic, younger, and non-verbal, their physical and emotional reactions to cope with pain can manifest as negative behaviors.
Addressing Violent Stimming
Your priority in addressing violent stimming is to remain calm and to keep your child and family safe. It may feel incredibly difficult when you are in the middle of an aggressive behavioral episode with your child but know that there are things that you can do to help the situation.
The focus is not to stop the stimming, but to have an awareness of your child’s self-regulation. Are they stimming, but showing signs that anxiety is building? What stimulus, or lack of stimulus, prompted the stimming?
Have a plan in place
Sensory overload can occur from each of the five senses, sound, taste, smell, touch, and sight. As a parent, we must develop an awareness of our child’s sensory threshold. We must be tuned in and recognize the signs when our child’s safe stimming is not working, and then turn to a strategy that we already have in place to avoid negative behavior and to keep our child safe.
Remove the cause
Remove whatever ramped up your child to sensory overload. What triggered your child to self-harming behavior?
Examples of removing the cause:
Remove your child from the room or the environment entirely until they reach a state of calm. If the problem is light, you may need to turn off the lights or turn on softer lights. If the problem is noise, take your child to a quiet room, or provide a headset that blocks out noise.
Accidents can trigger violent stemming, which is something you cannot remove. You cannot go back and erase the sensory reaction to an accident. Your option at this point is redirection.
Redirect to safe stimming
The challenge is to replace violent stimming with something that has enough stimulus to redirect the behavior and provide safe relief. The stronger the unsafe stimming is, the stronger the stimuli must be to meet or exceed the same purpose.
Examples of safe stimming redirection:
If your child is biting or hitting himself, he may need sensory input such as deep pressure. Apply pressure up and down the arms, give an intense hug, squeeze his fingertips (push down on his nails), or do a rhythmic hand pounding on their back.
If your child is yelling, he may need auditory input. Play his favorite music at high volume. Sing along close to his ear. Keep headphones on hand, which can provide a sensory buffer of blaring music or sound.
A change of routine can act as a redirection in some situations.
An example of this is a child who walks into a schoolroom and immediately feels overwhelmed (by the environment, lights, students, etc.), which leads him to stim, and often in an aggressive manner. The child’s therapist identified that he needed time to adjust to the school environment upon arrival. The child was then given time to take a break and interact with the teacher, which typically might not have happened for hours. The break became the perfect answer to the aggressive stimming dilemma, as the child no longer experienced the overwhelm of sensory overload as soon as he walked into the classroom.
Habitual aggressive stimming can be more difficult to reroute
You can try to remove the cause and redirect to safe stimming, but intervention with a therapist may be needed to get to the root of the problem and work on a safe solution.
Obtain a medical examination to rule out medical issues
Underlying health issues can cause discomfort and can display as self-injurious or violent behavior. This is especially important when your child is unable to articulate how they are feeling.
Have you ever been in intense pain and found yourself clenching your jaw? This is much like stimming (similarly, teeth grinding is a form of stimming). Clenching your jaw did not relieve the pain, but it is how you mentally and physically responded and coped with the ache, and you probably did so without thinking about it.
Stimming is healthy, but when stimming becomes violent and harmful to your child or others around him, it must be stopped.
Removing the cause or redirecting to safe stimming may work, but we urge you to seek help when it does not.
An RDI® certified consultant can help identify and address triggers and determine if your child is violently stimming due to issues such as anxiety or depression. A consultant will also develop interventions and determine options for safe stimming.
We believe that making lasting, meaningful, and lifelong changes begins at home with the child’s parents first and that the remediation process should take place amidst each family’s unique culture and relationships. The primary goal of the RDI consultant is to give power back to the parents.