One of the most misunderstood aspects of children who experience autism is the "stimming," or repetitive behaviors that can be overtly seen- flapping, rocking and spinning are just a few examples. It's often perceived as something pointless and coming from nowhere. Or, a "weird" and socially undesirable behavior that should be stopped immediately.
But, lets stop for a moment and think holistically about this. What is stimming, really?
Stimming behaviors are a result of the "asynchronocity" of the internal and external world of the child. Fancy, but--What does this mean? There are all types of information that the brain takes in - auditory, visual, tactile, gustatory (taste), olfactory (smell), proprioceptive (motion of body), relational, language, vestibular, contextual, emotional and motor. A lot of our brain processing occurs unconsciously. What does the brain do with it? In a nutshell, our brains take in a ton of information, make meaning of it, and then do something with it. Children experiencing autism have processing capacity systems that are challenged, and the meaning-making is where things usually break down for them. So much of their capacity is devoted to processing ALL the senses listed above PLUS other things they cope with such as nutritional deficiencies, expressive/receptive language deficits, discomfort in their bodies, tactile stimuli (their physical experience), olfactory stimuli (all the stuff they smell), auditory stimluli (loud noises), When the brain gets overloaded and the processing capacity is challenged with more input than it's able to manage, the
processing system breaks down -> attempts to regain stability ->
discomfort and behavioral symptoms surface.
Can you imagine how much processing capacity space is left over to devote to tasks in school or attention to a conversation? Not very much.
So, what's the big deal? The big deal is that the way we process information is what allows us to make meaning of ourselves and the world around us. We must actively make meaning (paying attention to information and thoughtfully acting on it). To support children with a challenged processing system who experience sensory-overstimulation, we need to move from a process-limiting mentality to a process-supportive one.
Within this process-supportive mentality, we understand stimming as coping mechanisms developed to help the child navigate and manage a confusing world. Just as I tap a pencil against my desk or shake my leg when I'm nervous to calm my system, so do children experiencing autism--they just do it in a more interesting and colorful way!
How can we help the child to reduce the constant input -> reducing the overwhelming feelings -> reducing the need for the coping mechanism?
1. Change the external environment and know your audience.
Rule of thumb: Decorate the physical space the way you would the living room in your home. You'd never stick anything and everything in all colors of the rainbow to your living room wall, would you? There is no need to place more visual stimuli in on the walls of your classroom or child' bedroom than needed. The beautiful posters and colors are useful only if the audience you're gearing it towards can appreciate it and make it useful. If your child is already over-stimulated by sensory input and their "container" is full or overflowing, the best kind of approach to decorating that increases the capacity of their container might be the 'minimalist' approach.
TIP: If you're working in a situation where you share a room and cannot just simply strip the walls, try hanging a white sheet over the wall or curtain to cover the extra "noise." Only have out what is essential to the activity. This small change makes a big difference.
2. The Plan Vs. The Child
The child is always more important than the plan you have that day. If the child is not cooperating or learning, it's your job to change the environment or your approach so that they can with more ease. Ask yourself: What is the need the child is presenting right here, right now? Is what I have planned supporting that need? If it's not, perhaps change the plan.
3. Understand the developmental milestones.
We cannot get to point C without going through A and B first. The developmental age does not always follow the chronological age of the child. It's useful to know where the child "should" be, and even more supportive to start where they are at and build from there. Think of a pyramid bottom-up approach. The foundation should be the strongest.
4. K-I-S-S: Keep it simple, silly
Less words. Simple explanations. Calm and direct. Slowww it down. Repetition is our friend. There's nothing more confusing or irritating than an adult on super-fast speed giving you a multi-step direction.
5. Relationship and connection is everything.
One of the most important aspects of supporting the processing capacity of a child with autism is joining them in their play. Think about how nice it feels when someone you just meet takes an interest in what you are doing or your work. Sometimes, they even ask if they can join in and follow your lead. This same thing builds rapport and helps children to engage and feel comfortable. It keeps them coming back for more and creates a safe space where other (possibly new) things are possible.
6. You always have your attitude.
A favorite running line I share with the students I work with is: "Normal is just a setting on a washing machine." Whenever I feel the need, I always come back to that one golden sentence, and my perspective just seems to expand beyond the limits I feel in the moment (and so does theirs).
When we consider moving from a remediation-oriented perspective of having to "fix" something or eradicate a behavior, to a holistic appreciation of the inherent difference that autism offers to the general tapestry of human functioning, a world of possibility emerges.
Instead of pushing, joining. Instead of pathologizing, understanding.
It seems that many people I have connected to in the last two weeks has been feeling a bit whelmed and thrown off track due to the transition the ending of summer brings. A new school year, a season about to change - all of these things can make anyone feel just a bit unhinged. I have felt a lack of groundedness at times-jumping from endeavor to the next. Being busy and purposeful is wonderful - but so is being in the present moment.
As I sit and reflect on the summer months, I think back to the week in June I spent at OMEGA Institute for my child and adolescent yoga and mindfulness training with Little Flower Yoga. That experience in itself is worthy of a separate entry at a later time. Apart from being a fantastic week of intensive training, the gift I gave myself was the opportunity to be surrounded by nature. The beautiful, lively, pure, sweet and healing power that reminds us of the wonder that surrounds us. I remember how different my body felt; a simpler and enriched state of mind. As the week progressed, I slowly began to give myself the space to feel; experiencing moments instead of just filling them with things to do.
My week at OMEGA has ended (until next time) but the gifts of that experience have stayed with me. I know I am able to access those experiences again, no matter where I am in the world. Bare feet in the cool grass on a warm day. The movement of the leaves on the tree outside my window during a rainy night. The sounds of my cat's rumbling purr as he sleeps beside me. The passing of a changing cloud. The pace of my changing breath during a morning stretch. Paying attention to all these moments in nature provides us with the silence that creates space enough to be present. I recognize these moments as opportunities to BE. Just be.
What are your opportunities? What moments in your life create the space you need to develop or regain a sense of grounding and stillness?
"Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognize a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes." -Thich Nhat Hanh
Today's seeds are tomorrow's flowers. Seeds for the soil is a blog dedicated to sharing information and giving support on topics pertaining to growth through challenge and mindful living. This blog is for anyone curious about self-discovery and supporting others in living their joy.