Kid Confidential: “Join In on the Stim!”

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Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is one of the great loves in my professional career. Persons with ASD are fascinating and wonderful and many times their behavior actually makes sense to me. I know what you are thinking, “This woman has got to be on the spectrum herself.” Well although I do believe that we all exhibit hyper- and/or hypo-sensitivities to various stimuli and that we all have what I like to call “a little autism in us,” it just may not be on the scale of persons who are diagnosed with ASD formally. It may not consume our entire interactions as it does for some students with ASD. So the question is, what do we do about it?

When I was in graduate school, the prevailing acceptable intervention was based on behavioral modification techniques. I was expected to spend time determining why that stimulatory behavior occurred (i.e. avoidance, stress, seeking sensory input, coping mechanism, sensory overload, etc.) and replace it with a more appropriate behavior. I still agree that this treatment strategy is appropriate in certain situations. For instance, if the student is seeking sensory input, let’s provide him/her with an appropriate sensory diet (under the supervision of an OT with the appropriate experience). If the student is exhibiting behaviors that are harmful to him or herself or others, they MUST be replaced by more appropriate safe behaviors. If the student is overloaded and attempting to escape/avoid a situation, let’s give him/her a break and/or modify the activity and expectations.

But are there times when we should actually encourage the stimulatory behavior? Are there times when we should not only support it, but “join in on the stim”? My answer to this is ABSOLUTELY! I know I just lost a few of you, but hear me out. The first time I read this idea, I was skeptical as well.

Jonathan Levy, author of “What You Can Do Right Now to Help Your Child with Autism,” challenges parents and therapists alike to do just this, join the child in his/her world by simultaneously imitating the stimulatory behavior. The idea is that for children who are profoundly affected by ASD and who spend all or most of their time exhibiting stimulatory behaviors actually need us to invade their world and physically pull them out of it by imitating them.

According to Levy, by joining your child/student in their stimulatory behavior you are telling them several things:

  • You understand their need to use this behavior.
  • You have something in common with them.
  • You want to interact with them and you are willing to enter their world.
  • They are safe to “be themselves” around you and you will not interrupt their need to stimulate themselves using these behaviors.

Does this actually work? According to Jonathan Levy, this is a technique Barry and Samahria Kaufmann, authors of the Son-Rise Program and founders of the Autism Treatment Center of America (ATCA), not only believe in, but have used successfully on their own child as well as numerous children nationally and internationally for more than 25 years. Anecdotally, I can tell you from my personal experience, I have done this and I have noted several positive changes with consistency:

  • Almost immediate increase in eye contact or facial referencing.
  • Students with ASD began to approach and/or gravitate to me whenever I entered their classrooms.
  • Students began to tolerate my touch or would take my hands and place them on their own bodies. For example, I had a female student once start pulling on my arms. I figured out very quickly she wanted me to do this to her. Although nonverbal, she made a request for the first time in her life! After I provided that sensory feedback, she was able to sit on the floor with her class during a large group lesson for the very first time.
  • And after a few weeks of joining in the stimulatory behaviors, I began to hear vocalizations. And for some of these children, it was the first time they ever vocalized!

Yes I was that therapist, jumping around in circles, flapping my hands, vocalizing various moans and groans along with my students. I was that therapist sitting at the lunch table filtering light through my fingers and screeching with my student as he attempted to eat. I was also the first person they made eye contact with; the first person, to which they handed a picture (i.e. PEC); the first person, with whom they exhibited joint attention; and the first person to whom they intentionally vocalized when making a request.

So does this technique work? I believe that it does if used properly for the appropriate students. This is not a technique that I believe every student with ASD requires or can benefit from, but it certainly appears to make significant changes in those who are so profoundly affected that they cannot find a way out of their own worlds without us stepping in and meeting them where they are.

Mr. Levy does leave us with a word of caution. Some children do not respond immediately to this technique as they are so far within their own worlds it could take them weeks to even notice your attempts to join the stimulatory behavior. But he ensures us, that this is not a reason to give up and believes that by giving the child adequate time, he will take note of your attempts to enter his world and you will break through the child’s barriers of stimulatory protection (Levy, 2007).

This has not been the case for me as I saw changes fairly immediately. However, I do believe that can be attributed to the fact that if the child is in a school setting, they are aware at some level that there are other people within the room, whether they seem to show it or not. I believe the school setting is unique in that just the setting itself forces the child with ASD to, even on a subconscious level, acknowledge there is a world bigger and different than what is found within themselves.

So the next time you have a student with ASD on your caseload that is profoundly affected and appears to spend all or most of his/her time exhibiting stimulatory behaviors, no longer ask yourself “What do I do with this child?”. Rather, make an attempt to enter their world and “join in the stim”. By doing this, you may just be the first person who has ever been able to connect with them.

Maria Del Duca, M.S. CCC-SLP, is a pediatric speech-language pathologist in southern, Arizona. She owns a private practice, Communication Station: Speech Therapy, PLLC, and has a speech and language blog under the same name. Maria received her master’s degree from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. She has been practicing as an ASHA certified member since 2003 and is an affiliate of Special Interest Group 16, School-Based Issues. She has experience in various settings such as private practice, hospital and school environments and has practiced speech pathology in New Jersey, Maryland, Kansas and now Arizona. Maria has a passion for early childhood, autism spectrum disorders, rare syndromes, and childhood Apraxia of speech. For more information, visit her blog or find her on Facebook.