Written by Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.
Center for the Study of Autism, Salem, Oregon
Stereotypy, or self-stimulatory behavior, refers
body movements or repetitive movement of objects. This behavior
is common in many individuals with developmental disabilities; however,
it appears to be more common in autism.
In fact, if a person with another developmental disability exhibits
a form of self-stimulatory behavior, often the person is also labelled
as having autistic
characteristics. Stereotypy can involve any one or all senses.
We have listed the five major senses and some examples of stereotypy.
Sense Stereotypic Behaviors
staring at lights, repetitive blinking, moving
fingers in front of the eyes, hand-flapping
tapping ears, snapping fingers, making vocal sounds
rubbing the skin with one's hands or with another
Vestibular (sense of balance)
rocking front to back, rocking side-to-side
placing body parts or objects in one's mouth,
smelling objects, sniffing people.
Why does stimming, or self-stimulation happen?
Researchers have suggested various reasons for
why a person may engage in stereotypic behaviors. One set of theories
suggests that these behaviors provide the person with sensory stimulation
(i.e., the person's sense is hyposensitive). Due to some dysfunctional
system in the brain or periphery, the body craves stimulation; and
thus, the person engages in these behaviors to excite or arouse
the nervous system. One specific theory states that these behaviors
release beta-endorphins in the body (endogeneous opiate-like substances)
and provides the person with some form of internal pleasure.
Another set of theories states that these behaviors
are exhibited to calm a person (i.e., the person's sense is hypersensitive).
That is, the environment is too stimulating and the person is in
a state of sensory-overload.
As a result, the individual engages in these behaviors to block-out
the over-stimulating environment; and his/her attention becomes
Researchers have also shown that stereotypic behaviors
interfere with attention and learning. Interestingly, these behaviors
are often effective positive
reinforcers if a person is allowed to engage in these behaviors
after completing a task.
Intervention for stimming, or self-stimulation
There are numerous ways to reduce or eliminate
stereotypic behaviors, such as exercise as well as providing an
individual with alternative, more socially-appropriate, forms of
stimulation (e.g., chewing on a rubber tube rather than biting one's
are also used to reduce these behaviors; however, it is not clear
whether the drugs actually reduce the behaviors directly (e.g.,
providing internal arousal) or indirectly (e.g., slowing down one's
overall motor movement).
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