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What is Sensory Play?

Sensory play, self-stimulating behavior, or “stimming” are all terms used to describe a group of behaviors seen in many delayed children.  It is repetitive, it often appears compulsive, and it can occur using any of the senses.  Parents usually describe it as something that doesn’t seem quite right.

As neurodevelopmentalists we view sensory play as negative, self-perpetuating, self-isolating behavior.   High functioning children and adults do not engage in significant amounts of sensory play, but low functioning individuals do.   Our goal, and the goal of the parents we work with, is to help each individual develop to their highest potential. Therefore, we discourage any behavior that will be counter-productive to high function.

Sensory play is a learned behavior that an individual develops for several reasons.  Primarily, it feels good and so the behavior is repeated.  With typical young children, playing with toes and fingers is pleasurable, and developmentally it is important as connections are made in the brain about where their body is, but the child soon moves on to the next exciting step in development.  When senses are delayed or impaired, the child can become stuck and the behavior becomes obsessive and can actually stop development.

You may have heard some say that sensory play is beneficial, calming, a communication attempt, or even a type of psychological mechanism.  It is possible that on an unconscious level some children use stimming to control their environment or to avoid the things they wish not to do.  For example, if a child stims he may be able to avoid uncomfortable social situations.  It is important to consider that many adults engage in various behaviors for the same reasons--- some to note are: smoking, drinking, drugs, overwork etc.  Just because a behavior has a purpose does not mean the behavior is healthy or developmentally helpful.

There is often a metabolic component to stimming.  When children are out of balance metabolically their stimming is increased.  Appropriate metabolic intervention can often reduce stimming and occasionally halt it.

Repetitive sensory play creates endorphins, “happy,” “feel good” chemicals in the brain,  much the same as the “runner’s high.”  These chemicals become addictive, causing the individual to repeat the activity in order to renew the good feeling.  Thus, the child becomes trapped in a compulsive behavior.  Development stops progressing, becoming more and more delayed, and for many children actually begins regressing.

We seek to stop sensory play, not as an end in itself, but as part of an overall treatment plan, which includes addressing the underlying neurodevelopmental causes of the behavior.  The causes often relate to dysfunction in one or more sensory channels.  To address sensory dysfunction, we need to: determine why the sensory information is not going into the brain correctly (where is would organize and progress to the next level), stop the sensory play, and address the root cause of the dysfunction with specific appropriate neurodevelopmental activities.

In order to stop a child from stimming we first need to be able to recognize it. The behavior will appear strange and repetitive, and there is often a compulsive element to it.  Typically, a child who is stopped from stimming will become quite angry.  Stopping stimming is equivalent to breaking an addiction such as smoking or drinking caffeine.  The intensity of the anger can be a clue to parents as to how “stimmy” a behavior is.

To stop sensory play parents can redirect the behavior, distract the child and get them engaged in other activities, or remove the implements the child is using to stim.  It is usually best not to try to explain or make a huge negative thing attached to the stim. Nagging does not work and can sometimes intensify the behavior.

When the quantity of stimming has been reduced it can sometimes be refined into something more appropriate.  An example is teaching a child who makes strange throat noises to form words.

The following is a list of stims in which children have engaged.  This list is not a complete list of all possible stims.  It is designed to give parents an idea of what behaviors function as sensory play.

Click here to view the list of stim behavior.

By Marilee Nicoll Coots, B.A. and Cyndi Ringoen, B.S., B.A., Neurodevelopmentalists.  Copyright 2001