Stimming are self-estimulatory behaviours in autistic people, characterized by repetitive movements or sounds. They DO have a function. Some therapies attempt to remove it, which can lead to the replacement of unhealthy new stims, such as self-harm behaviours. Unless it hurts the autistic person or others (in which case it can be managed and redirected to a non-harmful one), it is essential for our regulation. Function of stims according to the autistic community:
Communication of emotional and sensory state
Increase focus and concentration
Managing sensory dysfunction
Generating awareness of one’s own body
The pandemic brought uncertainty and fear about our health and the well-being of our loved ones, and with it increased anxiety. We all know the massive impact of confinement on our emotional regulation, both in adults and children.
Autistic people are more sensitive to the environment and things happening around them and our routine allows us to have some control over our limited energy, sensory experiences and overall environment, The occurrence of change can be a significant factor in the presence of anxiety, which can in turn generate a very strong response. These changes, because of this sensitivity, are often interpreted as a threat, a threat to yourself, your safety and well-being, and your ability to control your environment.
This response is called “Fight, flight or freeze”. When we sense a threat, our brain springs into action to respond to that threat, preparing us to fight, to flee, or, if there is nothing we can do to resolve the situation, to freeze. Each of us tends to resort to one of these responses more frequently when faced with potentially threatening situations.
It is important for us to reduce this perception of threat in our environment in order to better manage our anxiety.
Associating something new with an already established part of your routine can help you remember, thus introducing something new. For example, if you have a new medicine to take, associate it with breakfast, so that when you go for coffee you remember. Obviously, if you don’t have coffee, you may not remember this new change; however, this association allows you to introduce something new in a less stressful and painful way.
There are several apps for time management and scheduling specific things such as alerts to drink water.
There are several calendars and visual boards available on the Internet to set your daily schedule so that the autistic person knows what to expect from their day. You can easily print out the necessary visual cues at home and add them to each day of the week. If you are building a routine chart for your child, it will be important to involve them in this task so that the routine is introduced more smoothly.
You can also set up one of these boards to show what you have scheduled for food for the week (you can even put pictures of the food on each day of the week), especially if you have food selectivity, and for emotional identification (to ask how you are feeling).
Try to develop a specific process for each thing the autistic person has to do, and repeat it always in the same way, for example, bathing always in the same way (first shampoo, then liquid soap) or going to the toilet (pull down the trousers, pull down the underwear, sit down, etc.). If necessary, you can post pictures of this sequence in the place where it usually occurs.
If there is a change in routine, let the autistic person self-regulate, which may involve stereotyping. Allow some time to process the change, and manage it.
Autistic children are particularly sensitive to the emotion and arousal level of those around them, especially adults. Co-regulation is the process by which we can support a child to regulate their arousal level and emotions through our own emotions and arousal level. When we try to help a child who is distressed, when we are also in an altered state, it is very likely to result in an increase in the child’s stress, because it will “feed into” the emotion and arousal level that we are actually portraying in that situation.
Appear calm, through your posture and tone of voice, even if you are not, and in this way offer the child a safe and supportive base, which helps to regulate her emotions. Even if you consider that there is no reason for the child’s stress, avoid showing frustration, as this could exacerbate the situation.
During a pandemic, all emotional states are altered, and it helps to be more alert to your own stress and emotional needs. No one can manage every situation perfectly, but the more aware we are of what we need to stay calm and replenish our energy, the more control we will have over our environment.
The use of masks by parents and other people with whom the child comes into contact can generate a lot of anxiety, due to the uncertainty of who is behind the mask. Some autistic people also have difficulty recognising faces, and interpreting emotions from facial expressions. If you are a health professional, consider using a photo of your face without the face mask on a lanyard, or printed on the mask – this may actually help an autistic child feel safer and more comfortable in your presence.
Interests are not necessarily trains, as the stereotype indicates. In a survey of 400 autistic people, these were the most common interests. However, the interest with the most mentions, Music, only had in 20% of responses, indicating that interests are incredibly diverse.