Reducing Self-stimulatory Behaviors in Individuals with Autism

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused; ASD and DD, Child-focused

When a person with autism engages in self-stimulatory behaviors such as rocking, pacing, aligning or spinning objects, or hand flapping, people around him may be confused, offended, or even frightened. Also known as “stimming,” these behaviors are often characterized by rigid, repetitive movements and/or vocal sounds. Although these behaviors may sometimes look odd, they are comforting to the individual who engages in them and help him cope with fear, nervousness, excitement, or boredom.

While we may not think much about it, most of us engage in a wide variety of self-stimulatory behaviors. Tapping a pen on a desk, whistling, or twirling a lock of hair are examples of self-stimulatory behaviors. Many of us engage in behaviors like these when we are excited, nervous, bored, or frightened. Most of us can manage these behaviors and perform them without appearing strange to others. Usually we are not even aware that we are, in fact, stimming.

Self-stimulatory behaviors may seem harmless. But for children and adults with autism who lack social and self-regulatory skills, these behaviors can interfere with learning at school or completing daily living activities at home. They can also be disruptive and upsetting to others, causing them to avoid or ostracize the individual in social settings.

There are many ways to reduce self-stimulatory behaviors, but the most important thing to remember is that simply stopping the behavior from occurring – or removing the reinforcement, or comfort the behavior provides – will likely result in the individual learning to engage in another form of the behavior that could potentially be much worse.

The ultimate goal should be to replace the behavior with another behavior that provides the same type of reinforcement, but does not make the person stand out. For example, teaching someone who flaps his hands in the air to instead put his hands in his pockets, lightly tap a table or his leg, or clasp his hands together might be more appropriate.

The first step to reducing a self-stimulatory behavior is to identify what triggers the behavior, or to determine when and where the behavior is likely to occur. Once we identify the trigger, we can teach the individual an alternative behavior to cope with that situation. Let’s say, for example, you have determined that “John” flaps his hands in the air whenever his favorite television show comes on. The next steps might involve interrupting the hand-flapping by lightly prompting John to put his hands by his side, then redirecting his attention by giving him something he can do with his hands while he watches that particular television show.

When providing any type of verbal or physical redirection, it’s important to remember that the individual may learn that engaging in the self-stimulatory behavior will result in increased attention, which may be something he wants. Therefore, it is a good idea to limit the amount of attention you provide.

It is also important to remember that even after a successful behavior reduction program, individuals like John may return to their old self-stimulatory behaviors during stressful situations. Therefore, be ready to provide them with more alternative behaviors that will provide the same type of reinforcement. Certain medications may also help to reduce the anxiety associated with the repetitive behavior, but you should consult with a physician before considering this type of intervention.

Reducing self-stimulatory behaviors can improve the quality of life for many individuals with autism and other special needs. If these individuals can control or reduce their stimming behaviors, they will be able to learn without distraction, interact with others without fear of being ostracized, and ultimately lead more productive and fulfilling lives.

By Teka J. Harris, M.A., BCBA

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit

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