How We Handle Stims and Obsessions
When you start navigating autism, there are a lot of choices to make for your kiddo. What therapy, what extracurricular activities, schooling, socializing, what toys and how to balance all of this. You try to do your best with your goal for them in mind. For them to achieve whatever they desire to out of life and to never be held back because of being on the spectrum. Sometimes you succeed, sometimes you fail. Sometimes a bit of both. This is all a trial and error journey and sometimes as your child grows you have to reevaluate goals because you have grown to know your child more and they are also revealing more of where they are headed in life as far as independence or interests.
Two things that are typical for spectrum kids are stims and obsessions (or strong interests if you don’t want to call is obsessions). Stims are typically repetitive actions that either calm the child, show an emotion or they just like doing them. We all have stims. Tapping your fingernails, bouncing your leg as you wait, twirling your hair, chewing your nails those are all what we would call ‘typical’ stims for a neurotypical person. You do them when you are bored, nervous, or excited. You let some excess energy out by putting that emotion into an action. Common autism stims in our house are hand flapping, bouncing (jumping), mouth noises, crashing toys together, watching things fall and crashing into things. Rett ENJOYS all of these things like another kid would enjoy their favorite activity. They are giving him sensory input that helps regulate his body and make him feel ok in his own skin. You have to understand where he is coming from when he does his stims. And then you have to understand how they affect hist relationship with other people and you have to balance all that out.
Some people aim to get rid of stims that look not typical and change them into something more typical or less in your face. Hand flapping becomes, hands in your pockets. This makes the child blend in more which helps them be accepted.
We didn’t have a whole lot of hand flapping here when Rett was little. When we went in for his eval, they asked us and we said no. It wasn’t until they did their magic tricks to get hand flapping out did we realize Rett did indeed have hand flapping. And as he’s gotten older and some of his sensory issues have become stronger, it has been a lot more commonplace. I understand that hand flapping is a habit. Just like any other thing we do when we’re nervous or happy. And that sometimes even typical people have to stop nail biting or hair twirling or whatever. But for Rett he doesn’t hand flap to show he’s nervous. He hand flaps to show he’s happy. Just like you do when you smile. Can you imagine someone telling you to stop smiling every time you were happy?
When Rett’s hand flapping first started getting more common, we did a lot of hands down prompts. This was REALLY common for him in gymnastics. There’s a lot going on, its exciting and he had to wait his turn to use the different equipment. He was excited, he was happy, he was nervous about what he was going to try to do. And because we weren’t used to his hand flapping yet, to me it was another huge outward sign that Rett was different. Rett can do the blend in thing pretty darn well.
I remember thinking pre-kids that when I had them I wanted them to be themselves. To not give into what society dictated was cool, popular or ‘what you do’. And now having a special needs child, I have to make that choice to stand by what I always said I wanted for him or to cave to my own insecurities. There will be a day, hopefully in the far future, where Rett knows he’s different. Just like when you were a child and someone commented on how you always bite your nails. And then you choose to stop. You chose to stop doing something that drew negative attention. Rett might make that decision. But I’ve decided he’ll make it for himself. Hand flapping doesn’t really bother anyone. Some of his other stims bother me. Mouth noises. All.day.long. That’s probably the one that I prompt him to stop the most. Sometimes I send him to his room to play with his guys when he gets too stimmy. I know he’s having a good time but I require a lot of quiet time to maintain sanity. So its a balance.
Another thing you have to deal with are obsessions. Your kid just gets really INTO something for awhile. For Rett its mostly movies, shows or video games. He wants to watch them all day long. And quote them. And reenact them. And act them out with his toys. Its his ‘thing’ for the moment. I know its an interest of his but I can clearly see the drawbacks. Typically when he is doing this he is more wanting you to ‘watch’ him instead of actually interacting. He loses control of himself and has a hard time controlling his behavior choices because he’s so lost in this alternative movie or video game show. I’ve tried controlling the results of letting him indulge in his current obsession. Neither one of us has much luck. So typically I just have to make him stop. He hasn’t played angry birds in at least a month now. He picked up some horrible table manners from watching some little tv short within the game. He was making strange bird noises instead of conversing and was just lost in angry birds land. It wasn’t a phase, it wasn’t one of his little set backs. I honestly don’t know if it would have gotten better if I let him continue. Because I took every ipad and deleted every single angry birds game he had. And I got my boy back.
At this point, Rett can’t monitor his interests and he can’t weigh the choices of losing himself in that or being social. I can look back on my own past and see myself doing a lot of similar things where I chose my current strong interest over being social. And I regret a lot of that. Sort of. Someday he can make those choices too. But at this point when we need to work on his speech, I’m not willing to waste precious time losing him to a video game where he isn’t interested in communicating with us.
I’d love to hear how your family handles the balance of stims and obsessions! Its one of the tough decisions every family makes for their child until they are old enough to give some input themselves.