Stimming is a repetitive behaviour performed by aspergers and autistic children because it "feels good" or calms them. I've covered stimming before (see: What is Stimming and what does it feel like). In today's post, I'm going to cover a very specific type of stimming - visual stimming.
Visual stimming can often confuse parents and lead them in the wrong direction - to optometrists for eye examinations or to other specialists to discuss facial tics. Instead, a few well aimed questions at your child may put the record straight.
When I was a child, I used to engage in visual stimming quite a bit. It wasn't until much later, after I had been doing it increasingly for years, that my mother asked me what was going on. Until that time, I was not aware that when engaging in the activity, I presented anything at all to the outside world.
In reality however, my visual Stimming made me look like I had a very bad squint or like my eyesight was very poor. Accompanying the stimming was a rocking of the head which apparently was very noticeable.
Once I had become aware of how I presented, I gradually did it less and less. These days I hardly do it at all though there are still times when I catch myself doing it subconsciously.
Visual stimming takes a lot of different forms - only some of which are discussed below;
In this form of stimming, you half close your eyes and all the lights take on a funny appearance. Sometimes they form stars or smears and sometimes little rainbows appear within the light Tilting your head one way or another would make those those lights "dance".
It was this stimming which worried my mother most and she first brought it to my attention after church where I'd been an altar boy. You can imagine how embarrassing it must have been to have your son, a squinting, rocking altar boy sitting facing the crowd for all to see. In any case, church was a really great place for this form of stimming because there were so many bright lights around.
I also used to do this stim quite a bit in the car at night, when I was younger - obviously not when I was driving. The squint works best in dark surrounds with lots of lights.
Unlike the squint which relies on eye closure and head movement, the fade is more of a stare. I found that if you looked very closely at an object, you could get the surrounding areas to fade to grey. It's hard to achieve a complete fadeout because the slightest movement will cause the picture to return. During this form of stimming, your eyes will gradually dry out and become itchy - eventually you find that you have to blink.
The fade presents as a child who seems to be starring, unmoving into empty space. If you find that your child is doing this often, then returning to normal without any readjustment period, then it's possible that he's doing this stim.
Locating Shapes within Patterns
This sort of stimming occurs very frequently when you have tiles on the walls or floor. The child may stare at the tiles and begin to visually draw shapes using the boundaries of the tiles. This particular form of stimming presents as a fascination with tiles but eye movement will vary considerably from one person to another. It may depend on the age of the child - whether or not they need to move the eyes around the borders of the pattern or whether they can do the entire thing in their head
This presents as a child who looks at objects and revolves the eyes around considerably. What is actually happening here is that the child is following the lines of the object with their eyes. Effectively, they are tracing it. I often find that I go one step further and view the world through a mentally generated wireframe. I'm not sure how this presents in me, but it's probably not a great look - as I tend to do it while walking on busy streets.
Concentrating on Movement
This is probably the most reported form of stimming. There are two types of movement. Movement where an object itself is moving, such as a ball or a spinning object and movement where the movement of the person creates the illusion of movement on objects.
Watching spinning or rolling objects is extremely common in children with all forms of autism. Watching spinning objects is more widely reported though not necessarily because it occurs more frequently. It may simply be that watching a thrown object can appear more natural to the casual observer, while the observation of a spinning object can often cause the autistic child to stare.
Movement by illusion is often accomplished by a rocking of the upper body, a classic autism stim, or by simple movements of the head. Sometimes the child will spin themselves. In more complex forms, the rocking can be combined with watching a spinning object. Note that this isn't purely a visual stim and that the aspie or autistic person may actually derive a lot of pleasure/calm from their own bodily movement.
Dealing with Stimming
I've read some articles which suggest that you should "block your child's view of the objects on which they are stimming". I'm really not a fan of this approach.
Your child will always find things to stim on and blocking an object will simply lead them to a different object - or perhaps even a worse form of stimming. At the very least, it could trigger a meltdown if they can't relax.
Unless the behaviour is causing problems, you shouldn't try to change it.
If you are concerned about how your child presents in class or to his peers, then you might want to videotape his stimming and then replay it for him. In most cases, your child probably isn't aware of how he presents.
Don't accuse your child - or hassle them about the "problem". A "buddy" approach to correction might be more appropriate. Ask your child what he is doing when he acts that way - ask him how it feels and what the effect is like. Perhaps you, your child and his teacher could agree on a particular word or phrase to remind him when he's stimming in class.
I'm sure that there are a lot of other forms of visual stimming and in particular, that there are stims related to colour. I'll try to discuss the affects of colour on aspies in a different post - that's an entire topic on its own.
Stimming is a normal thing which everyone engages in to some extent. It's just that people on the spectrum tend to do it much more frequently. Stimming does not harm the child and may in many cases be beneficial and stress-reducing.
The Blue Ball Machine
One last thing related to this post. If you want to keep your aspie occupied for hours, show them this animated gif. The Blue Ball Machine - it's the ultimate computer stim.