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Redirecting an autistic child’s damaging stims
First, let’s talk about what are stims and why do autistic children do it.
Wikipedia defines a stim as:
“Self-stimulatory behavior, also known as stimming and self-stimulation, is the repetition of physical movements, sounds, or repetitive movement of objects…
…it is considered a way in which a person with autism and others calm and stimulate themselves”
“Some examples are rocking, hand flapping, head banging, stroking a piece of cloth” – autismawarenesscentre.com
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Also notice I said damaging, not harmful.
Harmful is when the child is harming themselves or others with their stim. When I say damaging I mean when the stim is damaging to the environment or an object.
Check out my post on autism and less known traits of autism for more information.
How it became a problem
In our case, C was stimming by rubbing the fabric of his shirt between his fingers. He would then proceed to rip the seam and take apart the shirt thread by thread until there is nothing but half a shirt or just the back of his shirt left.
He would leave for school in the morning with a brand new shirt and in the afternoon I would pick him up and half his shirt is SHREDDED!
He would literally go through one shirt a day.
It got expensive!
Not only that but he wouldn’t have a shirt to wear at school!
I could tell he was having a lot of anxiety in school. It was breaking my heart.
I knew I couldn’t make him stop and I didn’t want to. I’m learning more and more about why it’s important to him. But I needed to redirect him to a different activity that was less damaging to his clothing… and my wallet.
Finding a solution
In a case where damage is done to objects, it is important to redirect the stim to something that is not damaging.
You have to be compassionate and understanding during this process. This can be a slow process and will take time not only for the child to learn to do something new but also to find what the right solution and redirect is.
It took us quite a while and we went through a few different things to get to what is now working for us.
I want to share with you what we tried. I truly hope that this information will be helpful to you if your child has the same or similar stim and you’re looking for a proper redirect.
First, we purchased these sporty wristbands at our local walmart. They work really well because they already have little strings sticking out.
You can make your own wristbands by taking old socks with holes or ones that were not part of a matching pair and cut the top off.
Now the tops of the socks become wristbands. Place them on the wrists of the child.
2. Double shirt
When the weather is a little cooler you can double the shirts. Tell the child the top shirt is for school and needs to stay nice and neat. The shirt under is the one he can pick at if he needs to. This way one shirt will be destroyed and the one on top will still be there.
This does not solve the problem competely but it helps to save some shirts.
3. Keychain with fabric
Take a key ring and attach fabric to it. Attach the ring to the child’s bottoms (pants, jeans, shorts, etc). When they need to pick on something and are seeking that fabric, they can be redirected to the keychain.
There are three ways to make these
-take any fabric. Cut it into strips. Loop it through the ring.
-Take the shirts that have been ripped through or just any old shirt. Use scissors to cut just above the seams in sleeves and at the bottom of the shirt, as well as the neckline. Attach those strips of fabric to the key ring.
-Use old cotton shirts and cut them up in strips and attach to the key ring.
4. Button up dress shirt
Change the clothing that your child is wearing.
A button-up dress shirt is a little stiffer fabric than a regular t-shirt. It is harder to rip apart. But it gives the same sensory satisfaction when rubbing the seams in between the fingers. The buttons on the shirt are also great for this and it takes a while before one will fall off.
The button-up shirt is the latest thing we have tried and it’s been working for us. I bought a bunch of shirts at a local thrift shop for less than $4 each. I also like to shop at US stores such as Crazy 8 and Gymboree. They have massive sales where these button-up shirts are less than $6 and you can also save 20% by signing up for their coupons. I always stock up for the next year. They are really good quality as well!
*edit 1-31-19: The Gymboree and Crazy 8 stores have now closed. I will now have to find somewhere else to buy the shirts.
I hope these four suggestions are helpful to you. Wristbands, extra shirt, keychain, or a different type of shirt can be great alternatives to shredding a shirt into individual strings.
What kind of alternatives have you tried? Were you successful or unsuccessful?
“let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance “– Proverbs 1:5
michelle cross says
Please I need some help, and advice for my little boy who is 4 yrs old.. He will do a humming noise for the most part of the day. At times he is hyper active, and will sometimes make a growling noise.. Pls can you provide me with some help and advice on how to cope with this Many thanks
Wow. I’m sorry you’re going through this. I know how hard it is not having any answers. I would say start writing down what your son is doing. Record on video if you can. Look up those behaviors and bring it up with your child’s pediatrician. Here in the US I had to fill out quite a bit of paperwork and my son was observed for hours and hours to determine his diagnosis and how to help him. Here on my blog you can look up Autism symptoms and see if any of them sound familiar. I always say that contacting your child’s pediatrician is the best first step. Good luck mama.
Lindsay Adams says
I could have written this article! My son is going through the same exact thing! New shirts every day for months. We use the dress shirts as well because they’re harder to rip! We will try the wrist bands, thanks!
Wow I can’t believe there’s someone else out there like my son! How cool! But also how difficult is it, right? Honestly we still haven’t found a perfect solution. We still buy the dress shirts and my son also collects pine needles which he likes to break into tiny pieces. It seems to have helped with the shirt ripping although it’s very messy. Have you found anything that works for your son?