Ask the Expert: How Can I Get My Child with Autism to Engage in Less Self-Stimulation?


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We asked Michelle Colletti, an occupational therapist who practices in the NYC area, to give her insight on a question that often arises for parents of kids with autism: If my child is self-absorbed and often engages in self-stimulation, how can I get him to make more eye contact and "stimm" less?


For many children with autism, this is a central question. Behavioral approaches at times will extinguish one behavior, only to have another one pop up in its place. Reviewing some of the latest brain research may provide a clue. 

"Attachment" is the psychological term for an infant creating a warm and loving bond with his or her caregivers. Psychologists who have studied attachment have discovered it is through the relationship interactions young infants and toddlers have with their caregivers that literally create the proper connections in their brains that allow them to learn in school, tie their shoes, and make friends. For there to be attachment, first baby and caregiver must attune to one another. What is it our kids on the spectrum have so much trouble doing? Forming relationships...attuning to another person. In all my years of working with children on the spectrum, I've found it is much easier for we adults to attune to the child with autism.

If your child is still engaging in a lot of self-stimulatory behaviors, I suggest you do something you will think is strange. But bear with me, because science is now showing the effectiveness of this approach: The easiest way to tune into a child who is engaging in self-stimulatory behaviors is to join him in his behaviors. If you can leave your fear and apprehension at the door and imitate his behaviors, you help your child attune to you. The more you imitate him, the more he will attune to you. The more you imitate him, eventually, his "stimms" will decrease. I have seen it happen many times in my own practice.


Michelle Colletti, OTR/L is an occupational therapist who has more than 20 years of experience in her field.  She has worked in schools and private clinics in the NYC area and has an extensive knowledge of sensory integration and DIR/Floortime. Colletti can be contacted via her website:


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