Teens with autism who struggle with communication skills and self-regulation often turn to self-stimulatory behaviors to cope with overwhelming emotions. While these repetitive movements may be an effective way of regaining security and comfort for them, they can seem odd or disruptive in a social environment, leading to social withdrawal or rejection. As it can be difficult to differentiate between self-stimulatory behaviors and unhealthy coping mechanisms, many people try to help teens with autism reduce these behaviors without trying to understand what purpose they may serve. 

Self-Stimulatory Behaviors Meet Needs for Self-Soothing

Trying to suppress repetitive behaviors in autism by punishing them doesn’t alter the underlying reasons teens engage in these behaviors, which leads to teens trying to either hide these behaviors from others or replacing them with other substitute behaviors. When teens with autism learn that their coping skills are “wrong” or “socially unacceptable,” they internalize those messages about themselves and hold onto shame. 
In reality, most people engage in a wide range of self-stimulatory behaviors, like nail-biting, hair twirling, leg shaking, or face-touching, when we are feeling bored, nervous, or even excited. Most of the time, we engage in these behaviors subconsciously. The difference with self-stimulatory behaviors in teens with autism is that they develop a stronger attachment to them, as they help them cope with sensory processing issues in addition to intense emotions.

Common Self-Stimulatory Behaviors:

  • Rocking
  • Pacing
  • Hand flapping
  • Spinning objects
  • Repeating phrases

Other examples may include riskier behaviors, like self-harm, substance use, or other addictive behaviors.

Intense World Theory

Researchers Kamila Markram, Henry Markram, and Tania Rinaldi recently proposed that “Intense World Syndrome” may help people understand self-stimulatory behaviors in teens with autism. They suggest that social withdrawal, repetitive behaviors, desire for sameness, and difficulties with communication and relational signaling that characterize Autism Spectrum Disorder are not the root problem, but a result of attempts to deal with sensory overload. 
Rather than being oblivious, autistic people take in too much and learn too fast. This “hyperfunctionality,” including high levels of perception, attention, and memory, can make social and academic environments feel very intense. Teens with autism often develop repetitive, vigilant, or destructive behaviors as a way to manage an environment that feels threatening and overwhelming.

Coping with Sensory Overload

    1. Ask them to identify triggers in their sensory environment.
    2. Acknowledge the purpose “stimming” behaviors serve for them.
    3. Suggest ways to reduce sensory triggers, like wearing headphones or sunglasses, taking movement breaks, or changing environments.
    4. Encourage them to explore other coping skills. As many self-stimulatory techniques are directly related to physical sensations, exercise, meditation, and yoga are effective ways to increase body awareness and cope with physical tension and anxiety.

Discover Seven Stars Can Help

Discover Seven Stars is a residential treatment center for teens ages 13-17 who struggle with neurodevelopmental disorders. This treatment center focuses on academics, outdoor adventure therapy, skill-building, and positive psychology in order to build confidence and skills of struggling students. Students leave this program feeling more self-aware and equipped with the skills they need to live happy, healthy lives. We can help your family today!
Contact us at 844-601-1167 for more information about how we can help your child with autism and sensory sensitivities.