After putting Brooke to bed last night, I sat and listened. For about forty minutes each night before falling asleep, Brooke amuses herself with complicated vocal gymnastics. It’s quite a show.
She’s always been a squealer. She spends countless hours around the house perfecting her happy high pitched squeal. Brooke squeals while she eats, while she colors, while she runs back and forth through the kitchen. She squeals in the tub, she squeals in bed. Yes, she squeals constantly. Over these last few years, she’s gotten it down to a science. She does her own unique version of closed mouth scales, like a little diva preparing for her very own kind of aria.
Ah, the wonder of the soothing self stim.
A couple of years ago, Luau and I took private ABA lessons from a young woman who was a newly minted BCBA. She was very sweet, and very young, but she knew enough to teach us the basic principles of behavior analysis. For ten weeks, we would meet in the small waiting area of the offices where she worked. Luau and I sat in chairs next to each other, furiously scribbling notes. She sat opposite us on a small loveseat.
One of the basic tenets of ABA is that to change behavior, one first needs to understand the motivation for the behavior – why we do what we do. We talked about the various purposes or goals of human behavior – attention, escape, and fulfillment of sensory needs. Sensory needs include the basics like hunger and thirst, but can encompass far more for kids like Brooke who have a significant need for constant sensory input.
Our instructor introduced the term ‘self stim’, which she defined as a behavior whose sole purpose appears to be stimulation of one of the senses. It’s something that feels good or offers some kind of sensorial satisfaction. These behaviors, she explained, can be the most difficult to address because they come equipped with their own reward. She told us that many self stims seem to serve a regulatory function for people with autism. She gave us some examples including hand flapping, spinning, and rocking.
Our very young, very sweet instructor then looked across the coffee table at Luau and me. “Can either of you think of something that you would do to yourself just to seek pleasure? That you would do only because it feels good?”
Luau and I looked at each other. We looked at the floor. And then we looked straight at her and said, in unison, “Nope. Can’t think of a thing.”