You may have noticed that your autistic child or teen frequently rocks back and forth. Perhaps you've recognized this autistic rocking in yourself. This behavior is often more pronounced during stressful or exciting moments and can be distressing for others. Stopping the behavior can be challenging, but some strategies can lessen rocking in some people on the spectrum.
Why Autistic People Rock
For many people on the autism spectrum, the world is an overwhelming place. Loud noises, bright lights, and other sensory stimuli can make it nearly impossible to function in neuro-typical ways. Sensory integration disorder, also known as sensory processing disorder, affects a number of kids and adults on the spectrum. People with this disorder tend to avoid stimuli, seek out stimuli, or seek some sensations and avoid others. These sensory challenges affect their daily lives.
As they grow, autistic children often find ways to cope with these sensory issues. One common coping method is rocking, which is a behavior many practice well into adulthood. This behavior can provide calming vestibular input, and it may allow the autistic person to focus on interacting with his or her environment. In itself, the rocking isn't a negative thing. However, many parents and caregivers find the behavior disturbing, and some autistic teens and adults feeel self-conscious about it.
There are several reasons you may want to stop autistic rocking behavior:
- The rocking is violent, and you're concerned about your child getting injured.
- You're worried about the social aspects of rocking back and forth in public.
- The rocking is interfering with your child's or your ability to perform motor tasks or other appropriate activities.
- Your child or teen seems unreachable when he or she is rocking.
- You associate the rocking with the autism diagnosis, and it causes you anxiety.
How to Stop the Rocking
Whatever reason you want to stop the rocking, it's very important to remember that this is a coping behavior, and it's there for a reason. In order to reduce the rocking, you'll need to address its underlying cause, and replace rocking with a more appropriate behavior that serves the same purpose.
Keep a log of what is happening when you notice the rocking. In a notebook, write down the time of day and what the autistic person is doing. What might he or she be hearing, seeing, or touching? If you are addressing this behavior in yourself, make note of anything that is distressing you. The more thorough your notes, the more likely it will be that you'll see some kind of trend in the behavior.
Keep this log for a period of at least two weeks, and then study the data carefully. Does the rocking always happen at mealtime? Is the rocking in response to a change in routine? These notes will help you figure out how to address the situation.
Reduce the Stimuli
If you notice that the rocking is in response to a sensory experience or a stressful situation of some type, you can try to remove this stimulus. For example, your child may be stressed when it's time to go to school. If you can ease into this transition a little more slowly, you may be able to reduce the need to rock.
Similarly, sensory experiences like loud noises, clothing tags, food textures, or busy lobbies may excite the sensory system. The autistic person may need to rock back and forth in order to make sense of these experiences and calm himself or herself. Although it isn't possible to avoid all stimuli, you may be able to reduce the exposure and therefore reduce the rocking.
Provide An Alternative
If you notice that you rock when you are trying to concentrate or you suspect this is the case for your autistic child or teen, you may be able to provide this type of sensory stimulation in another way. For instance, if your child always rocks before arts and crafts time at school, try taking him on the swings right before class. The swinging may satisfy the vestibular sensory need, allowing him to focus on his project.
You can also try substituting a different behavior for the rocking at the time the individual needs it. If rocking occurs during dinnertime, for instance, she could try jiggling her foot instead. Although this movement doesn't provide the same level of sensory input, it may be sufficient to allow her to concentrate on the meal.
What Not to Do
Rocking can be frustrating, and it's perfectly natural to feel upset by this behavior. However, don't punish your child for rocking or feel ashamed of this behavior in yourself. This negative response can add to the stress level and make the behavior worse.
Getting Professional Help
These tips may help reduce autistic rocking behavior, but there's no substitute for professional guidance. If you have concerns about rocking, have your doctor recommend an occupational therapist who specializes in sensory integration therapy.