Let’s begin with a short answer to this question, and then we can pick it apart a bit to gain a better understanding as we go. Rocking can be a form of “stimming”, which is a word used to describe self-stimulatory behavior. It is a repetitive behavior often used to self regulate, to seek sensory input and to express oneself such as when happy or when upset.
A Quick Disclaimer
I want to throw out a bit of a disclaimer up front. Whenever you discuss a topic that relates to disabilities, or perceived disabilities, some people can understandably become offended. You may be talking about a loved one, or about a behavior that someone is already self conscious of. By answering the question, why do autistic people rock, I am not implying in any way that rocking is indicative of autism, nor will it be suggested that there is anything inherently wrong with rocking, or autism itself for that matter, as you will see when you continue reading this article.
Not everyone who has autism rocks back and forth, and not everyone who rocks has autism. That being said, enough people with autism tend to do this, and enough people who you see constantly rocking have autism to make this an often asked question. Why do autistic people rock?
To answer the question fully and completely as it has been asked, we will look specifically at why an autistic person who is rocking does so.
A Quick Note About Stimming
This question asks about rocking, but you should understand that stimming can take many different forms. It can be clapping, flapping, nodding of the head, dancing, snapping your fingers as well as more subtle forms of stimming such as tapping ones foot, drumming your fingers, biting your nails and any multitude of other physical movements.
Although it is referred to as stimming when referencing those on the autism spectrum, it is something that nearly everyone does and has always done. Mothers rock their babies to soothe them, a stereotypical image of an elderly person would be of them rocking in a rocking chair. And what about you? Have you ever bounced your leg, twirled your hair, tapped a pen on the desk, tapped your feet on the ground or anything like that when you were anxious or had too much energy? Have you ever rocked yourself back and forth to soothe yourself when having a deeply emotional cry?
These are all forms of stimming, and are often done for the same reasons that someone with autism stims. Rocking is simply another form of this.
Does This Mean An Autistic Person Rocks When Stressed?
It might mean that…then again it might not. As I said earlier, stimming in the way of rocking can be done for a multitude of reasons. An autistic person who rocks while under severe stress may also rock when excited, when sad, or even just when they’re bored! Stimming is often done as a way to close out the world. It can be used as a way to limit outside stimulation as well as to distract oneself from inside thoughts. Heck, sometimes it’s even done out of habit!
My point is, there are an endless number of reasons why someone stims at any given moment. Over time, you may learn to recognize what it means when an autistic person you knows is stimming just because you know them well enough to see subtle differences. It would be the same way that you sense when a friend or loved one is in a good mood or bad mood the moment they walk in the room even before they say anything or you’ve had a chance to see the look on their face.
What Are Some Other Examples Of Why Autistic People Rock?
One reason would be to self regulate. A common trait associated with an autism diagnosis is Sensory Processing Disorder. This is where the brain doesn’t receive sensory input the same way a neurotypical person’s does. Bright or flashing lights may physically hurt their eyes. Loud noises might hurt their ears and/or completely disrupt their thoughts. A neurotypical person may see these things as discomfort or distractions and can tune them out. That is not always possible for someone on the spectrum.
Whereas you may be able to block out the sound of the vacuum cleaner, or the background noise of lots of people in a crowded area just by ignoring it, a person with autism may need to self regulate. By rocking, they are able to block out the sensory input that they can’t handle by replacing it with self regulated sensory input. The action of rocking gives them something to focus on other than their surroundings, thereby minimizing the effects of those outside factors.
Another example of rocking is to seek sensory input. Think about experiences that make you happy. Maybe it’s eating a piece of chocolate or hearing your favorite song come on the radio. Rocking as a way to seek sensory input is one way that a person with autism might experience those same types of joy. The same thing that makes you want to dance to a song or air drum to the beat, is the same thing that makes an autistic person want to rock back and forth. The good feeling that comes over you when take that first sip of coffee in the morning is the same thing that they feel when they stim specifically to seek sensory input. They are making themselves feel good.
Sometimes a person with autism may do this in conjunction with something that already feels good so that they process it in the way they want. A song might make them feel good, but by rocking it delivers that good feeling in a way that their mind can better process.
When someone rocks or stims as a way to express themselves, it’s the equivalent to you clapping when you’re excited, or stomping your foot when you’re mad. You clap your hands when you get great news, an autistic person may rock excitedly in big back and forth motions. You stomp your foot or pound your fist into your other hand when you’re mad, while someone who rocks to express themselves may rock quickly in short, jerky movements. You hold your head in your hands because a close friend just died, and the autistic person rocks slowly in a long and slow way.
Should I Stop My Autistic Child From Rocking?
The short and easy answer to this is no. Why would you want to stop your autistic child from rocking? Why would you want them to stop soothing themselves, reducing their stress, staying calm or being happy? Are you trying to get an autistic person to look “normal”, or do you want them to live and function in a healthy way? Let’s look a little deeper.
We can all think of numerous social circumstances where rocking may be deemed inappropriate such as at dinner, at a wedding, in church or other similar settings. Some people might argue that those are not good enough reasons to stop someone with autism from rocking, and that society should be more accepting. Who cares what others think? For the record, I fall into this category. As I see it, if you can’t accept the behaviors associated with my child’s autism, then let’s talk about your socially unacceptable behavior of rudeness, arrogance and ignorance!
What about other scenarios though? What about on a plane or bus ride? While I agree that other people can stare and talk all they want and I’ll just brush it off as rudeness and ignorance, is it fair to other people if my son is so distracting that it is disruptive to them for an extended period of time? And what about the autistic person’s own personal thoughts? What if they are personally embarrassed because they rock and people stare, or it makes it harder for them to make friends and they wish they could stop?
In cases like that, it would be perfectly acceptable and potentially beneficial to teach someone to redirect their stimming in other ways. Notice I am saying “redirect” and not “stop”. There is absolutely nothing wrong with stimming, or rocking as a form of stimming, and as I have pointed out, we ALL do it to varying degrees.
When Someone With Autism Rocks, Is It Purposely Or Subconscious?
Both! Often times, someone on the spectrum may be unaware that they are rocking. They could easily be so wrapped up in their thoughts that they’re subconscious takes over as their mind tries to relax. Other times they may realize that they need to relax, and begin rocking as they focus on relaxing.
Think about when you do something that would be considered stimming. Let’s say you tap your foot. Do you suddenly find yourself tapping your foot and you didn’t realize you were doing it? Does your mind pause for a moment right before you tap your foot making it a conscious thought? I would guess both scenarios are true.
With that in mind, people with more severe autism may not realize that they are rocking. Or they may know that they are, but don’t give it any more thought than you would give when you scratch your arm. Your arm itches, you scratch it and you don’t think about it. If someone were to say “Hey, you’re scratching you’re arm.” You would be like, “Ya, so? It itches.” and it would be no big deal.
Do Autistic People Outgrow Stimming?
No, autistic people do not outgrow stimming. Have you outgrown your stimming type behaviors? It’s a natural thing that all people do to varying degrees. When you ask this question though, I think what you are really asking is, will someone with autism stim less often and will it be less noticeable as they become adults.
In that case, the answer varies and is unique to each individual. It depends on how severe the autism is, how great the need is to stim, and to a certain degree whether or not the autistic person wants to change their stimming behaviors.
Many people with high functioning autism, have learned to hide their stims in order to be more “socially acceptable”. They do the things that we described earlier like tap their foot, drum their thumbs or any number of other things so that the stimming is less noticed. Their need to stim is not reduced, their autism hasn’t changed, and the act of stimming doesn’t stop.
It’s important to note that in this scenario, it is a conscious choice by the individual themselves and not something forced upon them. Stimming is a way to reduce anxiety and stress, and by forcing someone to stop, or by making fun of them for doing it will only increase the stress and anxiety, and increase the need to stim.
Autism spectrum disorder is a very real diagnosis. The behaviors associated with this cognitive disorder are just as real. Symptoms such as sensory processing disorder are not visible. They can’t be seen, touched, heard or felt and are therefore often judged by others.
An autistic person who rocks back and forth to ease the pain and block out the bright lights overhead is no different than the person who is rubbing their hands due to arthritic pain. An autistic person who rocks in joy while listening to their favorite song is enjoying themselves as much as you are when you dance to yours. An autistic person who rocks in their seat at a restaurant which is full of different sounds, smells, lights and lots of action taking place is no less of a person than you who fidgets and squirms during a dental procedure.
Our paradigms are our reality. Once you accept that someone with autism doesn’t just see the world in a different way, but actually experiences it in a completely different way than you…then perhaps your paradigms regarding autism will open you up to a whole new perspective.