Autism and “Stimming”

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’d like to touch on one of the most commonly observed autistic behaviours- “stimming”.

So what exactly is “stimming?”

Self-stimulatory behaviour, (also known as stereotypy or “stimming”), refers to many of the repetitive behaviours often exhibited by autists. Examples of these behaviours include scratching or rubbing the skin, noise making, smelling objects and the classic examples of rocking and  hand flapping, although in my experience it’s a lot more like ‘Jazz hands’ than flapping!

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There are two psychological theories as to why autists stim:

  • As a response to overwhelming sensory stimuli
  • As a means of relieving stress and anxiety

From a physiological perspective, there are a number of possible biological reasons.

Some researchers believe that stimming provides the autist with sensory stimulation. Contrary to common belief, many people with autism have a reduced sensitivity to certain sensory stimuli. Dysfunctions in the circuitry of the brain mean that the body craves sensory stimulation, and so we adapt repetitive behaviours in order to stimulate and excite our nervous system.

Deficits in dopamine levels in the brain can also interfere with our reward pathways, leading autists to engage in behaviours, such as stimming, which will provide the extra hit of dopamine that the brain needs.

So that’s why I’m drawn to fluffy things! 😉

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Aside from being drawn to stimulatory texures, I have a particular tendency to fidget with the silver chain around my neck. I just find something oddly soothing about the rough sensation of the metal against my skin! 😛

In my experience, I also find that stimming isn’t always a response to stress, but born from a need to keep my hands busy.

As I’ve discussed previously, research shows that autists have higher levels of excitatory neurotransmitters such as glutamate, and lower levels of calming neurotransmitters in the brain. As a result, we are often hyper-stimulated. Stimulation of the brain’s reward system, i.e.  dopamine release through “stimming” behaviour, causes a decrease in glutamate levels, effectively calming the brain!

This would explain why I’ve often found that stimming sometimes helps me to concentrate and clear my mind by channeling any excess energy into a physical action. I find this particularly helpful when I’m studying, or writing, and for some strange reason while I’m waiting for the microwave to ping! 😛 #excitedforfood

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Stimming can also be considered a form of self injurious behaviour, but I’ll write a separate post on this topic at a later stage 🙂

So is there anything that can be done to control this type of behaviour?

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  • Try replacement behaviours– if the stim is not socially acceptable or harmful, as in the case of biting behaviours, attempt to replace the stim with another one such as a fidget toy or chewing rubber
  • Exercise– there is evidence to suggest that exercising can decrease the frequency of stimming behaviours, although the research is unclear why
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)– is thought to be useful as self stimulatory behaviour operates in a similar way to OCD tendencies which are often managed through CBT techniques
  • Medication– Seems there’s a pill for everything these days! Medications can be used to help modify compulsive behaviours such as stimming, but I personally would not advocate this route

So there we have it Earthlings, a brief insight into stimming behaviours in autism! 🙂

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Repetitive Behaviours- Skin Picking

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to give you an insight into a particular form of repetitive behaviour- skin picking.

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Ok- I know it sounds disgusting, but it is common for those with autism! The statistics are limited, but as many as 14.8% of autists exhibit this type of behaviour.

Skin picking, also known as neurotic excoriation or dermatotillomania  (I really do like the sound of these terms! 😀 ), is characterized by excessive rubbing, scratching, digging, squeezing and gouging of healthy skin. In chronic cases, the urge to pick and scratch can lead to scarring, tissue damage and infection.

If I were you though I probably wouldn’t look the condition up…some of the pictures of these chronic cases are disgusting!

In my own experience, I have a mild tendency towards skin picking. I prod and poke at bites and burns, pick at cuts and scabs etc., but squeezing my skin would be my biggest issue- I find it so addictive and it can be quite hard to stop! I also have a particular tendency to press hard against injured skin, like pinching an infected finger or pressing a sore toe against a hard surface- for some odd reason I find it comforting! It hurts, but I feel better about the injury after doing it. I suppose it must link back to the calming sensation of deep pressure stimulation or something!

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Now before we call the men in the white coats, let’s see if there’s a physiological reason for all of this! 😛

Research suggests that the dopamine pathway may play a particular role in this behaviour.

Dopamine is involved in reward motivated behaviours in the brain. Drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine activate dopamine, which is thought to contribute to the sensation of skin crawling and subsequent picking often experienced by addicts. So experts believe that dopamine dysfunction may be at play in this behaviour.

As I’ve discussed in other posts (sleep, ADHD, curiosity, inside the autistic brain etc.) dopamine is often dysregulated in the case of autism, so it stands to reason that this neurotransmitter may play an important role in skin picking behaviour in ASD’s.

Other experts point to a psychological reason for the behaviour as there is a strong link between skin picking and co-morbid psychiatric diseases. Skin picking is thought to act as a form of  communication in times of stress in the case of autism and is believed by some to act as a sensory outlet for sensory stimulation and or soothing.

Furthermore, as I’ve previously discussed, we autists tend to have more sensitive skin than the average person, this too could influence our tendency towards picking and scratching our skin.

Ah- so I’m not crazy after all! 😉

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But is there anything we can do to manage it?

Dermatologists and physicians find this one particularly difficult to treat and often seek drug and behavioural interventions to counter skin picking.

For me personally, this is difficult to advise as the reasons for picking differ from person to person, annnnnnd I tend to indulge the behaviour rather than avoid it 😛

However, I have been making conscious attempts to reduce the frequency in recent years to help protect my skin, and to avoid looking like a weirdo in public! Don’t want people thinking I have fleas if I persistently keep scratching myself!

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The best advice that I can give is to keep your hands busy- if they’re occupied, you won’t pick! Gaming and crafting I find can be useful to keep my hands from wandering 🙂

So there we are Earthlings! 🙂 Hope I didn’t disgust you all with this post! 😛

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

 

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