People with autism typically have a level of sensory integration dysfunction that causes them to misinterpret, be overwhelmed by, or under-register sensory information from their bodies and surroundings. This sensory dysfunction often drives some stereotypical behaviors that are characteristic of a diagnosis of autism. For more information on sensory processing and autism, be sure to read Harkla’s article HERE.
In some cases, people with autism engage in self-stimulation, or “stimming” behaviors in an effort to combat sensory overstimulation, tune-out the extraneous sensory information, and decrease their arousal level. In other cases, the self-stimulation is to provide more sensory information in order to increase their arousal level because their bodies are not appropriately registering the information and they need more input! These self-stim behaviors are repetitive in nature, can be whole-body movements or movements of objects, and serve a sensory purpose.
Common stim behaviors are: hand flapping, humming, rocking, flicking or snapping fingers, staring/gazing at objects, lining up objects, pacing, bouncing, tiptoe walking, twirling (self), hair twirling or pulling, verbally repeating words or phrases, picking/rubbing/scratching skin. The list of self-stimulatory behaviors is much longer than those we’ve listed, but when you look at the sensory functions of some of these stims, it’s easier to recognize their purpose and perhaps find a replacement that meets these sensory needs in a different way.
When looking at why people with autism prefer certain stims at different times, it’s important to look at the purpose the movements serve from a sensory perspective. We use our sensory systems to help regulate, focus, interact, and function in our daily lives. When considering specific stimming behaviors in terms of one’s auditory, visual, tactile, vestibular, gustatory (taste), and olfactory (smell) senses, it is easier to identify the why behind the behavior and to find a replacement if you are looking for one.
If you read our guide, Everything You Need to Know About Fidget Toys for ADHD and Anxiety, you learned about some fabulous fidget toys that support focus and engagement. Fidget toys can be stim toys, and vice versa! The benefits of both are positive, no matter what the toys are called. That being said, we will refer to the products in this article as “stim toys” because they are often chosen to redirect or replace “stim” behaviors.
For people with autism, the recommendations for complexity and function of stim toys may be slightly different depending on the user’s motor skills, preferred stim behaviors, and reasons for implementing a stim toy. Some parents, behaviorists, therapists, or educators may base their selection of a stim toy in order to provide a more appropriate replacement behavior that is less distracting or less stigmatizing. In some cases, the stim toy redirects what may turn into self-injurious stim behavior.
Whatever your reason for researching stim toys or fidget toys for autism, keep the preferences and sensory profile of the user in mind so you can appropriately match the options to their needs. Remember, we all have multiple tools in our self-regulation toolbox, so explore multiple options!
Rain Stick - also offers visual input
Spiky, gooey, squishy sensory balls - throw, squeeze, stretch
Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty
Water “timers” like this are great for predictable visual input
Every child and person with autism is different. They have specific sensory interests as well as clearly defined personal interests. The sensory considerations for stim toys are most important when looking at the stim behaviors you want to replace or redirect, not so much the recommendations for products we’ve listed! These are intended to jumpstart your stim toy shopping by identifying how one toy might be differently used than another.
Let us know what stim toys are preferred in your home! We’d love to add your ideas to our lists too!
Comments will be approved before showing up.