Understanding and responding to self-stimulating repetitive behaviours

Sep 6, 2020

The content of this article is derived from a video by Global Autism Solutions, particularly by Gerd Winkler, the director of the establishment, who has had an extensive amount of experience with families of children on the Autism Spectrum. You may find the video, titled “Understanding and responding to self-stimulating repetitive behaviour”, here.

In this video, a parent shared with the audience an observation she made of her son, where he tended to repeat a series of behaviours such as bargaining, getting angry, and crying before he adheres to perform a particular same task every day. Gerd addressed this observation by explaining the concept of self-stimulating repetitive behaviours and why children do them and extended his sharing by inspiring parents on how they can appropriately respond to such behaviours. The key essence of Gerd’s sharing focused on building trust in the child, and how this process is multi-staged and cannot be rushed or forced.

Self-stimulating behaviours and why children do them?

Self-stimulating behaviours, also known as stimming behaviours, are commonly observed in children with autism. Though, it is worth a note that such behaviours are not unique to them, and can be exhibited by children and adults without autism as well, in various shapes and forms. The stimming behaviours commonly observed in children with autism are hand-flapping, rocking, and performing ritualistic behaviours like lining objects up on the floor.

Gerd mentioned that children with autism engage in stimming behaviours as a way of calming themselves down and gaining control in unpredictable situations. He emphasized that there is nothing wrong with such behaviours, and it might be useful for parents to let go of any negative judgements they might have on these behaviours.

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How to respond to self-stimulating behaviours?

Having the understanding that self-stimulating behaviours arise because of distressing situations, parents can respond to them by validating the child’s emotions, and assuring them that whatever they are feeling is understandable and that they will be loved no matter what. Gerd reminded that the least effective method is to try to get the child to stop engaging in the behaviour.

Building trust in the child

Gerd used a simple and effective analogy of a river to demonstrate the stages of building trust in a child for them to be open to more experiences. The analogy is that children and parents are at opposite sides of the river, and parents should constantly and continuously build a bridge to the other side to experience the world of their children first, and in this process, build trust in their children for them to feel assured enough to want to cross the bridge and experience the world of their parents.

The commitment to understanding a child’s world is essential in creating an environment for the child to be motivated to trust, as opposed to an environment where the child’s behaviours are constantly rejected. Gerd encouraged parents to take the time, no matter how little they may have, to build this trusting relationship with their children and they may realise in time that stimming behaviours might decrease following the sense of safety the children feel in the presence of their parents.


Parents may often feel that there is something amiss when their children act in ways that are unfamiliar to them. Similarly to learning about a new culture, learning about the world of our unique children requires the acknowledgement that things are not “wrong” just because they are foreign to us and that learning about their world would require our commitment in time and effort.

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