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Self-Stimulatory Behavior as an Outlet

Self-stimulatory behavior (SSB) is a class or group of behaviors where individuals engage in behavior(s) for sensory stimulation. In Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), we commonly refer to these as SSBs. These behaviors look very different across people. These behaviors are often displayed by autistic individuals. Examples of SSB are hand flapping, rocking, flicking fingers around, moving an object or hand in front of the eyes, and hair twirling.

Mother and son flapping their hands together, using self-stimulatory behavior (SSB) to express how they feel.

Why are self-stimulatory Behaviors Used?

For many individuals who engage in SSB, these behaviors serve a purpose. In ABA, we believe all behaviors serve a purpose. Self-stimulatory behaviors tend to stand out and can be considered socially inappropriate or unacceptable. But for those who engage in these behaviors, they serve as an outlet.

How Can We Relate to SSBs Used by Autistic Individuals?

Think of your own behaviors when you’re in a new social situation, giving a speech, or starting a new job. When trying something new for the first time, you may engage in behaviors that serve as an outlet to express your feelings. The difference here may be that you are more aware of your behavior(s) and may manage them in a way that is more socially acceptable. Maybe you tap your finger, click a pen, or tap your foot up and down.

These behaviors help to self-regulate what the body is feeling—calm us, keep us focused, or express positive feelings.

Dr. Janessa Dominguez

Autistic individuals sometimes have difficulty with communication and the expression of emotions. SSBs are one way that these might be expressed.

How SSBs and ABA work together?

As clinicians, we don’t want to get rid of these behaviors because that would mean the individual has no outlet for expressing how they are feeling. Instead, we want to recognize settings and situations where these behaviors may be inappropriate or disruptive. For example, hand flapping and bouncing up and down may not be suited for the classroom. So we want to replace them with behaviors that are better suited for the environment, but still meet the individual’s needs. For the classroom example, the individual can use a fidget spinner. Replacement behaviors should serve the same purpose as self-stimulatory behavior that may not be suited for a setting or situation.

Recognizing SSBs, the purpose they serve, and better understanding the patterns of the behavior(s), can go a long way in developing more effective replacement behaviors for the individual. This also includes when the SSBs should and shouldn’t occur.

Want to Learn More?

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