Many parents observe their child engaged in repetitive, unusual, or frightening behaviors. They endeavor, at all costs, to stop such things as hand-flapping, shaking, bending at the waist, head smacking, and repetitive speech. Yet what the parents, grandparents, caregivers, teachers, counselors, and many psychologists never seem to do is ask “Why?” There is a presumption that the activity must be wrong because the child (or adult) is autistic.

Behavioral Matters

They presume wrong. Often, the individual engaged in unusual behaviors is doing so for a perfectly valid reason. Something has caused them some form of distress. It may be a thing perfectly normal to others, but to that individual, it’s troubling in some way. Without inquiring, the caregiver will never discover the reason and tries to stop the behavior, worsening the condition for the individual.

Now that we have your attention, ask yourself, is the behavior autistic or neurotypical? One child, when excited or distressed, would jump up and down repeatedly, flailing their arms and yelling. If sad, the yelling sounded nervous, if happy, it was joyful. To the child’s parents, this was ‘weird’ but when asked, “Isn’t that normal for anyone when they’re highly excited?” they said “No!” quite firmly.

Actually, it is. Watch anyone on a game show, and see how they behave even when they haven’t won but were given a chance to win something. They jump up and down, flail their arms, cry, scream, shout, and keep jumping until they exhaust themselves (often right into the commercial break). Are they autistic because of this behavior? No.

The actions offer a release of emotional overload. Why is that any different in an autistic child or a neurotypical game show contestant? Most autistic behaviors are merely exacerbated, enhanced, or excessive things you will see any neurotypical person doing if you observe.

“Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.” – Plato

Jake was a ten-year-old student with good learning abilities in the fifth grade. He was closely attached to his mother and felt most comfortable with her nearby. Every day he would interrupt his class by asking where his mother was, repeating the question. His teacher would answer “She’s at home,” explaining it once, then ignoring his repeated questioning. The teacher only made Jake more agitated. He knew his mother was home but needed reinforcement of that fact. Why? Because when Jake was eight, his dog died and he never saw the beloved pet again. This induced a fear that his mother might be gone forever.

When we were called into the school as consultants, we asked Jake about his mother. He spoke calmly, lovingly, revealing a close reliance upon her for safety and security. He was not as close to his father, and when we inquired, it was simply because after the dog passed away, when Jake wanted to know where it went, the father replied: “He’s in doggie heaven and you won’t see him anymore.” To Jake that was the wrong answer. He felt his father was punishing him for some unknown wrongdoing.

The principal wanted a solution. We provided one by getting a photo of his Mom and put it in a pocket in his notebook. In the pocket was a note from his mother saying, “I’m home, don’t worry.” For the next few weeks, the number of times he asked his teacher where his mother was, she answered: “Jake, she’s written you a note. Look in your notebook,” answering every time he asked. Within twelve school days, he became comfortable with the vision of his mother in his book and stopped asking his teacher. His grades improved and so did his learning capacity.

Let’s face it when a human is stressed by something that’s so important to them that they must know the answer, and they’re not getting the right response, they’ll block out all other issues until the proper answer is provided. That happens to all human beings, no matter what their condition may be.

The solution is not to change unusual behaviors, nor to try to calm them. The solution is to ask “Why?” then answer that critical question. Eliminate the cause of fear, nervousness, and you overcome the individual’s need to engage in the behavior.

Behavioral therapies can be cruel, hurtful, and punishing to the individual. Stopping the stimming actions may please you, but does it please the person who finds it calming? While you may expect self-control, can you define that for all humans? Can you say what balances your life, or determine what should balance another person’s? Even your child’s? What defines your calmness may not work to calm another. Are you allowing self-determination for that individual in how they resolve their own crises? Are you being supportive or helpful, or are you trying to impose your own standards?”

Lastly, are you using your own willpower to focus on the child’s (or adult’s) needs? Learn to ask the basic questions, starting with the most critical … “Why?”