Is My Baby Stimming? Here's How To Tell If Their Behavior Is More Than Just Being A Baby
My son is a perpetual motion machine and always has been. Since the moment he had free reign over his body, he's used it to feel out his environment and soothe himself. We joke that he has to "get his wiggles out," when he's having a particularly jumpy day, but when he was a few years old, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. His "stims" were one of the red flags the pediatric psychologist used to diagnose him. However, not every motion an excited child makes is a stim. So is your baby stimming? It's important to know the difference between self-regulatory stimulations and just the plain old excitement of babies.
The thing is, everyone stims to some degree. Maybe you bite your nails, or scratch your scalp. Have you ever noticed yourself bouncing on your toes while waiting in line or tapping your fingers when you're nervous? According to the Child Mind Institute, having a stim is very different from the stimming behaviors of kids on the autism spectrum. The differences come from the severity of the action, the repetitive nature of the stimulation, and the reason behind it. When it negatively impacts regular activities or leads to an impairment of social function, like rocking instead of talking, that's when it's a concern, noted Child Mind Institute.
For my son, his stim started as hand flapping and gesturing and progressed to toe-walking and eventually bouncing. Bouncing is now his primary stim. He does it unconsciously almost all the time, but it gets worse when he's agitated, excited, or upset. When he was a baby and flapping his arms wildly, I just thought it was a quirk he had and a way of expressing his excitement. It wasn't until later on, after he started receiving intensive occupational and physical therapy, that I understood. The flapping became more and more intense the more uncomfortable, or strangely enough, happy that he was. Crowds, loud noises, and Lady Gaga all made him flap so hard it was amazing he stayed on the ground.
It never occurred to me to ask at the time if he was stimming because I was so concerned about other areas like his speech and non-verbal communication. Looking back, I should have, and that's why I decided to contact his first occupational therapist, Anna Ivanova, to talk about what the repetitive motions that babies do actually means and if it's worrisome or not.
Ivanova tells Romper, "Stimming isn't uncommon with neurotypical children, so it's hard to know if it's a self-regulatory behavior or just a habit without knowing the child personally." She says that if your baby is hand flapping, or walking on their toes, or making strange vocalizations for long periods of time, that might be normal. "It's not just kids on the spectrum who stim. Kids with Tourette Syndrome, ADHD, and some kids with a tendency towards nervous habits can and do stim. Autism is the most common condition associated with stimming, but not the only one."
Ivanova notes that if your baby is exhibiting any of the other "red flags" for autism spectrum disorder, like a lack of eye contact, not responding to their name, and no "showing" gestures like pointing and clapping, then it might be good to have them evaluated. "The earlier you begin therapy, the better," she says. My son began receiving therapy from Ivanova at 18 months, and it has helped him dramatically. His was a tough road to hoe because he's not only autistic, he's also a savant, so regular interaction with his peers is absolutely key, and some of his self-regulatory behaviors make that tough.
Talk to your pediatrician if you're worried about your baby stimming. If they're concerned, you should get the ball rolling for evaluations. Heck, even if they're not worried about it, but something in your gut tells you something is off, pursue it. There's no harm in just seeing it through.