Looking at Self-Stimulation
Authors: Kate Hurst and Robbie Blaha, TSBVI Outreach Programs
Keywords: leisure, mannerism, behavior, sensory stimulation, sensory deprivation, central nervous system, self-regulation, social skills, sensory channels, self-stimulation
Listen to the Article
In the Pursuit of Leisure, or “I’m Okay, You Have a Mannerism!”
Note from Kate Hurst: Thanks to My Colleagues!
This article was originally published in the early 1990s in the “P.S.News!” newsletter published by the TSBVI Outreach Programs. Even though it has been around for a while, I still think it is worth revisiting. At the time it was written, medical technology had not shown us all the things we have since learned about the brain, stress hormones, and resiliency. But pioneers like Dr. Jan van Dijk and Dr. Lilli Nielsen were already figuring these things out when it comes to individuals who have visual impairments and additional impairments, including those who are deafblind. They knew that self-stimulation was in response to sensory deprivation for these students. Now science is validating what they proposed.
I began to think of this article with the intention of writing about leisure skills. I had no idea I would end with an article on self-stimulation. I hope this article shows some of the prejudice that seems to exist in thinking about this topic. We have to understand that self-stimulation is a normal human activity and address those behaviors accordingly.
I would also like to thank Gretchen Stone, Ann Silverrain, and Barbara Bellemo-Edusei for their contributions to this work. These women, along with Robbie Blaha, formed a study group back in 1985 after attending a conference in Tallahassee conducted by Dr. Jan van Dijk. Challenged by both the information and the values conveyed by van Dijk in discussing children who are deafblind, they worked to digest rather complex information about the human brain, the nervous system, and the implications this information has for teaching children who have visual impairments and additional impairments, including those who are deafblind. Their discussions, and the papers generated as a result of this study group, were invaluable to me in beginning my journey of understanding the effects of sensory deprivation on the central nervous system and how it relates to the way individuals with sensory impairment may respond to the world.
Leisure time, the time free from work or duties, is important to all human beings. Leisure time is the time for doing something that will relax us or energize us, so that we can renew ourselves to face the demands of our lives. It is something we require as much as food or sleep to stay healthy and sane.
We all have different ways of spending our leisure time. What might be a leisure activity for me (reading a mystery) might not be leisure to you. We know and accept this about each other. When considering “leisure skills” for individuals who have visual impairments and additional impairments, including those who are deafblind, however, we often focus on activities which do not relax or positively energize them. We tend to spend time getting them to participate in “play work”, as one young man who was deafblind terms it. Learning to play games, participate in arts and sports activities, or other pursuits as part of their educational programming may be beneficial for children in many ways, but these activities don’t necessarily meet their needs for “leisure”.
The type of activities that often do provide relaxation or amusement for these individuals includes behaviors that many find unacceptable: flicking your hand in front of your eyes, pulling threads out of your clothes, making repetitive sounds, etc. These behaviors are considered self-stimulation, and as such, are often perceived negatively because they do not look “normal,” may interfere with learning, and can often become self-injurious. Yet these behaviors serve a positive purpose for these individuals.
Changing our perception of these self-stimulatory behaviors may be the most reasonable course to take in addressing this issue, especially if this change of perception also helps us find ways to give more information to the child and consequently reduce his need to find stimulation on his own. These behaviors may also hold the key to information about their personal preferences, which could offer opportunities to teach them more appropriate choices for leisure activities.
Most of our “leisure activities” are nothing more than self-stimulation behaviors that have become highly ritualized over time and made socially acceptable. There is nothing intrinsically valuable or reasonable about leisure pursuits such as bungee jumping, playing cards, dancing, playing video games, listening to music, smoking, etc.
People participate in these different activities because they find them to be pleasurable and because the activities alter their physical state. Each activity provides a particular type of sensory input (see the chart below). There is not always a great difference in some of these activities and so-called self-stimulation behaviors beyond the fact that some are more socially acceptable and “normal” in appearance than others. For example, what is really so different about banging a table and banging a drum, rocking to music and rocking to silence, making repetitive sounds and imitating bird calls, spinning for no apparent reason and spinning in a ride at the amusement park?
Sensory Channels and Self-Stimulatory Behaviors
Our brain seeks out stimulation through the channels of our senses. Each of us seeks out this stimulation in a variety of ways. Society accepts some of these behaviors without question, yet feels very differently about others. In some cases, this acceptance seems to be arbitrary. The chart below shows examples of how individuals typically fulfill this craving for stimulation and some self-stimulation behaviors that parallel these behaviors.
|Miss Manners’ Guide to Appropriate Self-Stimulation
|Creative Variations Which May Plug You Into a Written Behavior Plan
Information received by touch (through the entire surface of the body); includes sensitivity to light touch, pressure, pain, and temperature.
|Twirling hair, drumming fingers, playing with condensation on a drinking glass, fingering fabrics, rubbing eyes, pulling on beard
|Pulling hair, lying in front of the air vent, slapping face/ear, playing with spit, rubbing head
Information about the relative positions of parts of the body. This information comes through sensations arising in the muscles, joints, ligaments, and receptors associated with the bones.
|Snuggling in quilts, cracking knuckles, jiggling/crossing legs, sitting on your leg
|Burrowing into furniture, wrapping arms inside tee-shirts, wrist flapping
Information received through the eyes; seeing.
|Gazing at your fingernails, hands and rings, watching television without the sound, window shopping, flipping through magazines, eye pressing
|Flicking hand in front of eyes, flipping pages of books, light gazing, playing with transparent or shiny objects, eye poking
Information received through the ears; hearing.
|Humming, whistling, tapping a pencil on a surface, playing background music
|Vocalizing or making sounds, banging on objects, tapping objects together next to ear
Information received through the nose; smelling.
|Wearing perfume, sniffing magic markers, scratch and sniff stickers, burning incense
|Rubbing feces on the body and smelling, smelling other peoples’ hands or shoes
Information received through the tongue or lips; tasting. (closely tied to the sense of smell)
|Chewing flavored toothpicks, sucking on mints or hard candy, smoking, chewing on hair, sucking on pens or jewelry
|Mouthing objects, chewing on hair, sucking on fingers, licking objects
Information received through receptors in the inner ear which enables us to detect motion, especially acceleration and deceleration (closely tied to the visual system which provides information to the vestibule located in the inner ear).
|Rocking in chairs or rocking body, amusement park rides, dancing, twisting on bar stools, skating, sliding
|Rocking body, spinning, twirling in swings, head rocking