Self Stim Behaviors

Self stim behaviors are something that we all engage in to some extent or another.  Behaviors like smoking, twirling hair, tapping a pencil to the beat of music, or even wearing perfume are all stims that we engage in.  Most all of use engage in these behaviors when we’re bored, tired or in need of sensory stimulation of some kind.  Where is the line between appropriate and inappropriate self stim behaviors?  Can anything be done to redirect or stop these behaviors once they cross over into the socially inappropriate arena?  Does this mean everybody in the world has SPD because we all engage in self stims?

Where is the line between appropriate and inappropriate self stim behaviors?

I’m going to list some of the socially appropriate self stim behaviors that people do to feed a sensory need. Think about which ones you engage in on a daily basis.

Visual Stims: window shopping, gazing at something interesting (painting, picture, something sparkly, etc.) and noting the details.

Auditory: listening to music, tapping pencil or fingers to the beat of music, humming.

Tactile: feeling the texture of a fabric, drumming fingers on a table, twirling hair, petting a dog or a cat.

Vestibular: dancing, skating (skateboard, ice skating, roller skating), riding a bike (this could also be proprioceptive), going on rides at an amusement park, rocking in rocking chairs.

Proprioceptive: cracking knuckles or other joints in the body (I have a friend who can crack her hip!), sitting cross-legged, getting comfy cozy in a blanket.

Olfactory (smell): wearing perfume, using scented “plug ins” or scented sprays

olfactory stims

olfactory stim

Oral:  Smoking cigarettes, chewing on toothpicks, chewing on pencils or pens, chewing gum.

So we all do some of these things. I’ll tell you which I’m prone to: curling up under an electric blanket, with NO sound in the background (I am very sensitive to auditory stimuli), smelling the fabulous plug in scent from Bath and Body Works that is plugged into the wall, while trying to crack my back and stretch my toes, mixed in with a little bit of rubbing my eyes and slightly pulling on eyelashes (I hate getting eyelashes in my eyes).  If I’m sitting up I’ll also probably be running my hands through my hair.

The difference, though, between appropriate and inappropriate stims is the frequency and context of the stim.  If I sat under my blanket at work, I would probably be carted out of the room and asked to come back when I’m feeling better.  While rocking in a rocking chair is totally appropriate at home, rocking in a stationary chair in the middle of a job interview is a sure fire way to get put at the bottom of the list.  Twirling and swirling on an amusement park ride is a blast but twirling around in the middle of a classroom during a Language Arts lesson is less appropriate.  Additionally, a small child that is teething will most likely chew on everything in sight, but a 10 year old should not be frequently chewing on hands or toys.  Frequency and context are the major factors that influence whether or not a stim is socially appropriate.

Can anything be done to redirect or stop these behaviors once they cross over into the socially inappropriate arena?

If I was told that I MUST stop snuggling under blankets with a cat on my lap, I would probably go ballistic.  I am currently doing just that very thing.  My little munchkin cat is laying between me and my computer as I type this very post.  Asking somebody to stop doing something that they love which provides sensory feedback that their body needs is a difficult thing.  You will likely lose the battle when you ask somebody to stop a self stim behavior.  There are a couple of things that someone can try to make the behavior appear more socially appropriate.

Providing a time when a person can engage in that self stim behavior might be a short term solution.  There is no way, however, to be certain that the behavior is occurring exclusively during that particular time, especially if the child is at school or other places. Lapses might occur.

Giving an alternative behavior that is more socially appropriate might be a more successful.  A child, for example, who enjoys chewing on sleeves or other things would benefit from Chewlery  (jewelry made from materials that are safe to chew on) or pencil toppers  that are acceptable to chew on.   A child who needs a lot of vestibular input, might love to play on a Sit – N – Spin  or take a trip to an amusement park where they can spin to their heart’s delight.  Even with socially appropriate alternatives, there may be times when a person slips into stims that are less socially appropriate.

For example, My son learned a finger motion that is somewhat socially inappropriate.  I showed him a different hand motion to use but he continued the other hand motion for several months after being reminded of the alternative behavior.  Now about a year later, he doesn’t do either the appropriate or inappropriate hand motions at all.

Does this mean everybody in the world has SPD because we all engage in self stim behaviors?

spd and visual stims

Visual stim

No. We don’t all have sensory processing disorder.  A person with SPD experiences serious difficulty in their lives due to how the brain processes sensory stimuli.  While I have problems with loud auditory stimuli, (especially at conferences or times when I need to listen) it isn’t so disabling that I can’t hold a job.  I also enjoy looking at photographs and paintings that I consider visually appealing. I don’t, however, have SPD and my visual stims aren’t severe enough to distract me from work or other people.

People with SPD have difficulty processing certain sensations so their reactions to certain stimuli may seem inappropriate.  In all reality, their behavior isn’t really that inappropriate.  They are doing what it takes to make sensory stimuli make sense to them.  Their actions just don’t match what society deems appropriate which can make it difficult to hold a job or be successful in school.  Unfortunately, this can cause depression, anxiety and aggression which further magnifies frustrations caused by this disorder.  This quote from the SPD Foundation web site sums it up well, “While most of us have occasional difficulties processing sensory information, for children and adults with SPD, these difficulties are chronic, and they disrupt everyday life.”