Self-stimulatory behaviors can be categorized as “repetitive, stereotyped, functionally autonomous behavior seen in both normal and developmentally disabled populations” (Lovaas, Newsom, & Hickman, 1987, p.45). Examples of these behaviors commonly including arm flapping, rocking back forth, jumping up and down, hand gazing, lining up objects, etc. These behaviors provide automatic reinforcement. Automatic reinforcement is reinforcement that is delivered as soon as the behavior occurs without the mediation of another person. Reinforcement gained from these types of behaviors typically endures over long periods of time and seem to be consistently more resistant to satiation than many other socially mediated reinforcers (Lovaas et al., 1987). These behaviors often referred to as stims can be distracting and stigmatizing for children with Autism. They can impede teaching and inhibit social interactions.
These types of behaviors are difficult to eliminate however, due to the automaticity of reinforcement. If we simply try to block the self-stimulatory behavior we have a low chance of making a lasting change because we would be depriving the child of sensory reinforcement that they are getting on a normal basis. Lovaas et al. (1987), argue that these behaviors are not inherent to the child, but are learned as the child interacts with their environment, engages in the behavior, and then gains sensory input from the behavior. So following this logic we can teach children to gain the same types of input from more appropriate means. Finding a functionally equivalent replacement behavior and consistently blocking the stimulatory behavior is essential to help the child engage in more appropriate behaviors while still accessing the same type of reinforcement. For example, if a child repeatedly bangs on hard surfaces with their hand to gain auditory and tactile input, it may be appropriate to teach them to bang on a drum with their hand or with drum sticks instead. They would need to have access to this item so they can still gain the reinforcement. Also enriching the child with a variety of reinforcers that provide alternative sensory reinforcement can be helpful. For example, after a child engages in a desired behavior providing them with a toy that spins and has a flashing light would provide them with visual reinforcement. Interestingly some studies have shown that self-stimulatory behaviors can be used as reinforcers when learning various skills. For example, Hung (1978), demonstrated that allowing children to earn short periods of time to engage in self-stimulatory behavior after practicing appropriate speech increased the amount of appropriate speech the child engaged in. Using a combination of these approaches may yield the highest decrease in self-stimulatory behavior for the learner, ulitimately helping them to interact appropriately with their environment.
Hung, D. W. (1978). Using self-stimulation as reinforcement for autistic children. Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia, 8, 355-366.
Lovaas, I., Newsom, C., & Hickman, C. (1987). Self-Stimulatory Behavior and Perceptual Reinforcement. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 20(1), 45-68. Retrieved January 29, 2015, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1285951/pdf/jaba00099-0047.pdf