Parents of children with autism often ask Board Certified Behavior Analyst Reena Naami-Dier for her professional opinion regarding autism behaviors and skills they’d like to work on. Two common requests include how to reduce repetitive behaviors commonly referred to as “stimming,” and also how to increase eye contact for their child on the autism spectrum. Work on these skills should be given a lot of consideration and should be approached selectively, says Naami-Dier.
What motivates a family’s desire for these skills? “I think that there are factors that have contributed to families being focused on increasing eye contact and reducing stimming, and a lot of it is societal,” says Naami-Dier, Owner of Spark Center for Autism, an early intervention ABA center in Farmington Hills.
Within the autism diagnosis itself is whether or not an individual is able to sustain eye contact, and one of the three main diagnostic criteria is “restricted or repetitive patterns of behavior,” or stimming, she says. Both are elements often inherent in the autism spectrum, yet, in some cases, they’re contrary to what is considered socially acceptable.
“As a society, we place so much emphasis on social skills and the ability to make friends. There is a perception that making eye contact is necessary to engage with others socially and a lot of people also feel that making eye contact is the best way to determine whether or not someone is actually attending to you,” Naami-Dier says. Yet, she adds, this isn’t the only way to engage socially, and some cultures even consider prolonged eye contact to be rude.
Stimming, too, is often frowned upon. “A lot of it is really based on society’s expectations that if something looks a little out of the ordinary, then it’s wrong,” she says. “There is also still a lot of stigma associated with autism, so any of these characteristics bring about a desire to reduce them, rather than embrace and accept them.”
Alternatives to eye contact
It’s hard to know if eye contact is aversive to an individual with autism, so teaching eye contact isn’t always appropriate. With a goal to assist clients to be as independent as possible and navigate their world more easily, Naami-Dier instead focuses on helping kids “acquire” eye contact organically, similar to other skills learned through ABA therapy.
“Pairing things like naturally occurring eye gaze with really fun and terrific things can help establish eye contact as something more comfortable,” she says. ABA and occupational therapists can also work on developing a child’s ability to track items visually. “We also look at other behaviors that often occur in conjunction with eye contact, like head tilts or orienting the body toward something or someone.”
Placing value on these behaviors — rather than on eye contact itself — can help you find new ways to recognize your child is paying attention.
Stimming through a different lens
Aware of it or not, everyone engages in some form of repetitive behavior, says Naami-Dier. Consider how you might shake your leg when you are seated, or how you twirl your pen. “These are things we do automatically, often without realizing it, and they are difficult to stop,” she says.
“It would be really inappropriate and very strange for someone to come to you while you are shaking your leg and physically stop you from doing it, and we apply this same concept to the kids we work with. From their perspective, they have no idea why someone is stopping them from flapping their hands.”
It’s more productive to see what’s behind a child’s stimming. “That’s where getting assistance from an occupational therapist could come in handy,” Naami-Dier says. “They may need help regulating or they may have other sensitivities that we aren’t aware of, or even dealing with anxiety. Any nail biter can understand this.”
Embracing unique abilities and personalities
Instead of focusing on undesirable — but harmless — behaviors, time spent building language and communication skills is often effective.
“Oftentimes an improvement in communication skills will naturally produce more positive results in other areas as well,” she says. “Also teaching coping and regulation strategies can help build more positive relationships and establish better rapport with your child. We try to focus on the positives, such as creativity and distinctive imaginations, tenacity and resilience, and even a child’s ability to be accepting of differences of others.”
If you are a parent who wants to work on these skills with your ABA provider, Naami-Dier encourages you to start with the “why,” and know that your provider will not judge you for bringing it up.
“Have conversations about why these are important to you, but keep an open mind about whether or not it is really the best thing for your child,” she says. “Our job is to help you find ways to understand your child and their needs, even if it means putting aside your goals for your child and celebrating their neurodiversity.”
Learn more about Spark Center for Autism. Visit sparkcenterforautism.com.