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Self-stimulatory Behaviour

Self-stimulatory Behaviour (stimming) is repetitive body movements, movements of an object or verbal noises such as flapping, rocking, spinning, pacing, facial tics, vocal tics, spinning toys, echolalia, repetitive questions etc.  Self-stimulatory behaviour may be used for various reasons including:


  • If the individual is over-aroused i.e. excited, anxious, frightened it may be used to regulate the nervous system to calm.

  • If the individual is under-aroused i.e. slow, sluggish it may be used to regulate the nervous system and become more alert.

  • The individual may use it for proprioception i.e. to feel aware of their body.

  • It may be used it to block out other sensory demands.

  • It may be used when an individual is in pain.

  • It may be used to release stress chemicals, which help reduce anxiety.

  • It may be enjoyable.


Generally most stims are harmless.  However, sometimes a stim may need to be reduced or modified i.e:


  • If the stim is harmful – such as biting self, banging head, hitting their head.  Over time this may become more dangerous as they may need to do it harder to get the same feedback and this may lead to injury.

  • If the stim is inappropriate.

  • If the stim is disruptive or interfering with the activity of others.


It may be beneficial to understand what need the stim is meeting before you can reduce/replace.  We should respect this need and not punish for it.  Below are techniques to reduce and redirect stims if this is necessary:


  1. Identify a safe area where it is appropriate to stim if necessary.

  2. Give time limits and use timers to count down to reduce time spent.

  3. Use a visual schedule to show when they can go to the safe area and use visuals to show the length of time allowed.

  4. Have a concrete ending to the activity i.e. 5 more and we will stop, then re-direct.

  5. Use a gentle touch (if appropriate) to end the activity, then re-direct.

  6. Re-direct to a favourite activity or toy.

  7. If inappropriate or highly disruptive, we can look for other stimulatory behaviour that can be substituted.

  8. Substitute with a more acceptable stim that meets the same need.

  9. If biting themselves, replace with another oral stim such as chewellery, crunchy foods etc.

  10. With self-injurious behaviours, check with your GP that there are no medical issues that may be affecting their behaviour such as digestive issues, allergies, biochemical imbalances etc.

  11. If the stim is to block out other sensory demands, we can modify the environment to reduce sensory input.

  12. A Sensory Diet from your Occupational Therapist may reduce/increase their sensory input depending on what is needed.

  13. Use social stories to explain any rules of when stimming may be inappropriate and reinforce these when you go somewhere new.

  14. Use visuals to communicate where a stim is appropriate and when it isn’t.  These symbols can be placed in various areas to reinforce.

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