Adaptations in Autism: Social Skill Development and Stimming

Children with autism often experience social impairments. These include deficits to social awareness, cues and communication. Social skills typically develop through processes of reciprocity and social reinforcement. Children on the spectrum do not develop typically in these ways. They are internally stimulated and often unaware of or uninterested in the awareness of others. Pro-social behavior must be taught and reinforced in order to establish successful communication and skill development. Interventions for social adaptations are plentiful, and vary with the spectrum disorder.

Social impairments are manifested in a variety of ways, one of which is stimming. Stimming is a repetitive behavior which may lead to obsessive behavior. Stimming interferes with social interaction and skill development. The child with autism may be stimulated by a certain object, idea or behavior. This stimulation leads to an intense focus on the source, and reduces the significance of the anything else in the environment. Stimming can be manifested in virtually any form of sensory stimuli.

Stimming can lead to intense negative behaviors upon interruption. When a child is receiving desired stimuli from repetitive or obsessive behavior, anyone who attempts to disrupt the stimulation might find himself a target of aggression. Stimming is rarely socially acceptable behavior. In most social settings, it is considered abnormal and does not promote relationship building or social success. It is best to prevent severe stimming with early distraction or redirection.

Applied behavior analysis, or ABA is the most effective intervention for reducing stimming behavior. The behavior is then replaced with pro-social behavior. In some cases, it is eliminated altogether. The child is taught to seek stimulation from a more appropriate source. For example, when a child stims on oral fixation, he or she might engage in self-injuring behavior such as hand biting. An appropriate replacement would be chewing gum, if the child is high functioning and it is safe for the child to offer it. In time, the child learns to chew gum rather than his or her hand. Another replacement for hand biting might be raw carrots or celery, to engage the oral stimulation that is sought.

Stimming is often triggered by anxiety. Therefore, if the stimming is to be eliminated other coping skills must be adapted. These pro-social coping skills will reduce the desire to stim and encourage independence for the child. Intervening before the child hits an anxiety level which will cause a stimming meltdown is key to elimination. This means recognizing and interpreting the signals the child with autism may demonstrate prior to stimming. Once these signals are recognized, the therapist or caregiver will prompt pro-social behavior and provide immediate reinforcement.

Reciprocity is a common intervention strategy to encourage pro-social behavior. Turn taking and interactive play are ideal and simple strategies for establishing reciprocity. Children on the spectrum can be taught appropriate responses to various social situations. For example, they can be taught greetings and farewells. “Please” and “thank you” are good places to start when directing social cues and reciprocity. This helps the child to integrate socially with successful momentum, lowering the subsequent episodes of anxiety driven meltdowns.

Social skill learning is a continual process for the child with autism. It is one that will require the dedicated guidance of his caregivers. Social skills are an evolutionary process for each person; they change with growth and maturity. A typically developing person will take social cues and adjust his or her skills to those receptions. The person with autism will require a guide to interpret and navigate social cues. They also require appropriate responses. Once these are learned, social success is realized.

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