The self stimulating behaviours in adolescents are similar to those at all other age groups. For some, the behaviours are mild and do not interfere with the life and learning of the adolescent (e.g., twirling hair, rocking legs, clicking pens.) Those are the types of behaviours seen in typically-developing human beings. It is not uncommon to be speaking to someone and note that one of you is rocking from foot to foot, playing with a pen, or playing with their hands. Many typically developing people have fidget toys such as worry-beads, a bracelet that they twirl around their wrist, or ring that they twirl around their fingers. Adolescents may make fun of each other for having such behaviours, but they all have them.
However, there is a group of adolescents for whom self-stimulating behaviours are excessive and interfere with daily living. Usually, such excessive behaviours are seen in those with developmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder or developmental disability. The adolescent may rock their body, pick at their skin to the point of scarring the tissue, spin objects, flick their fingers in front of the window in an apparent intent to watch the light between their fingers, repeatedly flick light switches or open and close doors, and/or engage in a myriad of other similar behaviours.
Many adolescents will masturbate. Typically developing adolescents know where and when to engage privately in this behaviour. Those with developmental disorders are not likely to be aware of how such behaviour is perceived by others and are more likely to engage in masturbation in public. This is extremely disconcerting to teachers, peers, and parents.
It is generally believed that any self-stimulating behaviour can be stopped through the use of behavioural strategies. However, it is also generally believed that when the behaviour stops it is replaced by another behaviour which may be even less socially acceptable. Therefore, when observing self-stimulating behaviours the staff must determine:
- which behaviours they can live with, and
- which behaviours must be stopped.
They must consider the function of the self-stimulating behaviour and determine if there is another behaviour they could teach the adolescent which might serve the same function in a more socially acceptable way. For example,
- it is not reasonable to teach the adolescent that they can never masturbate;
- it may be reasonable to teach them that they can do so in the privacy of their own bedroom at home.
When making decisions about how to address such behaviours, teachers must consult with the parents to ensure that all cultural and religious factors are considered.
Research indicates that the severity of many self-stimulating behaviours among those with developmental disorders decrease with age. Stereotyped (repetitive, ritualistic) movements and restricted interests are less common among adults than among children. Self-injurious behaviours and compulsive behaviours appear comparable throughout all age groups. Ritualistic behaviours and the need for sameness seem to be more common among older individuals with developmental disorders. However, other research indicates different patterns of change over time. The only thing that is confirmed across studies is that some self-stimulating behaviours will remain consistent as the child ages, and some will change.
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- Adolescents may show some mild forms of self-stimulation, some of them specific to this age group, including masturbation.
- Concern about acne, body structure and body weight may become more common at this stage. This can contribute to stress, leading to nail biting and face-touching or other mild repetitious behaviours.
- Intensity, duration and ability to control the self-stimulation should be taken into account in deciding whether it should be of concern.
- Adolescents are generally quite good at hiding their self-stimulating behaviours for fear of being ridiculed by their peers. Behaviours such as pimple squeezing, nose-picking, and repeated face-touching would be most likely practiced in private by the youth. They are likely not to interfere with the youth's academic or social activities.
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- Self-stimulation that is of relatively long duration, is intense, and particularly when it involves specific self-abusive behaviours, needs observation and monitoring.
- Rocking, head-banging, hand hitting, covering ears, engaging in the same behaviours repeatedly and non-functionally over short periods of time should alert teachers to the need for ongoing monitoring.
- These behaviours are likely to co-exist with other difficulties of an academic and social nature. For example, the more stressed the adolescent is, the more likely such behaviours will increase in intensity.
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- Self-stimulation that is intense, enduring and interferes with the youth's academic, communication and social activities is most concerning. This is particularly the case when the stimulation is not under the youth's control, is ongoing and is exacerbated by stress.
- Examples are head banging, self-biting, hitting hard with the hands on solid objects, rocking, and spinning uncontrollably.
- Youth who fit this description are likely to have shown such behaviours in the past; it would be extremely rare for such behaviours to develop in adolescence.
- The behaviours may be ongoing and appear to provide some relief to the youth when he or she is engaging in them.
- Repetitive behaviours can help an adolescent reduce feelings of stress and relax in the predictability of the routine.
- For example, the person who rocks while sitting, reading, or in class may find this comforting, not unlike those who enjoy sitting in a rocking chair to watch television.
- The behaviours are likely to re-appear after adults make attempts to have the adolescent suppress them.
- There is no embarrassment evident, and the youth engages in the behaviours instead of the usual activities and academic interests expected of young people this age.
- Teachers will want to explore whether the young person is undergoing any kind of medication withdrawal.
All adolescents will self-stimulate. A portion of the population will have behaviours which cause concern. Teachers should be discussing their concerns with the adolescent, his or her parents and with colleagues to determine which ones to address, and how to do so.
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