One of the most important milestones to a parent of an infant is when they start sleeping through the night. Bleary eyed parents compare notes…when does the child sleep? How long? Where? Paci, swaddler, thumb sucking, night feedings?
My oldest slept through the night at 10 months, after I did the 3 night cry-it-out method, which worked fabulously. My youngest slept through the night some time after she turned 2, when I weaned her. M, however, was over 4 years old the first time she slept through the night (with the help of a weighted blanket). Even then it was very sporadic until over 4 1/2…we usually find her sleeping with pillows piled on top of her.
So, what does sleeping through the night have to do with stimming?
A baby is able to sleep through the night after they learn to self-soothe. Many times this is through the use of a pacifier or thumb sucking, sometimes a swaddler or soft music helps them lull themselves back to sleep. Eventually they learn to put themselves back to sleep all on their own.
A stim is a repetitive action or behavior that helps a person with Autism calm or soothe themself. Some types of stimming that are familiar to many people are hand flapping and spinning. M has a number of different stims that she uses to soothe herself and tune out the outside world when she is overstimulated.
M hisses or repeats words or phrases over & over. Sometimes she spins. She chews on her hair or her clothes (though we have many different theraputic chewers for her, she usually prefers her hair & clothes). Sometimes she jumps up & down, sometimes she growls or makes other noises.
Aspergian obsessions are also like stims, in a way. They are a way for them to retreat into their own neat, controlled world where they feel more comfortable. M is obsessed with Taylor Swift (until recently it was The Beatles), firefighters/fire trucks, John Deere tractors and patterns. Right now her biggest obsession is A/B patterns. Tonight she lulled herself to sleep muttering about A/B patterns. If she can find a pattern in something it makes sense to her and is less scary.
There are a lot of people who talk about how to get your child to stop stimming, how to bring them out of their obsessions. I believe most of those people are not actually a part of the Autism community…while there are many views (pretty much all valid), most I know don’t find it important to stop stimming and obsessions. Me, I’m thankful for M’s stims and obsessions. Without them she would have no way to soothe and calm herself, and I can not imagine how much harder life would be for her, much less how much worse the meltdowns would be, without them.
There are times I know are really hard on M (especially transition times like home to school or school to home), I make sure to have Taylor Swift playing and my Nook tablet ready for her to play Mah Jong (one of her favorite pattern games). This makes it so much easier on all of us! I try to encourage her to chew on her chewy bracelet or necklace but if she really wants to chew on her hair I don’t stop her. If she’s hissing I leave her alone because I know she is really overwhelmed and will stop and come to me when she is ready to face the world again. If she’s repeating words & spinning in the store I let her…shopping = sensory overload on many levels, I’m just glad she’s able to be there.
So next time you see a child or adult displaying repetitive behaviors like noise making, shirt chewing or hand flapping, understand that they are able to get through their experience because of these behaviors. They are not weird, stupid or disobedient for having these behaviors, they are coping and bravely trying to make it through an overwhelming world. While M’s stims aren’t always noticeable and she is still young, I plan to be the parent that never tells their child to stop stimming, or to withhold items of obsession. She is amazing, wonderful and beautiful the way she is and I am proud of how hard she keeps trying.