(CMR) Your kid may have repetitive habits that you find embarrassing or irritating. He may like sucking on his shirt, shaking his leg, or he may like feeling people's arms or sniffing ‘weird' objects. These weird behaviors do not mean that something is wrong with your child; don't be quick to get an internet diagnosis of autism. Believe it or not, these weird behaviors might be helping your child regulate his senses.
Up to 70 percent of typically developing kids engage in repetitive and seemingly purposeless movements like leg shaking, nail biting, or hair twirling, Parents magazine reported based on Seminars in Pediatric Neurology statistics. Parents magazine state that not only are these quirks normal, but kids have them for a reason: they are a way to self-regulate one's senses. Here are some weird behaviors and how they help your child, according to Parents.
Sucking on things– According to Parents magazine, Kids who gravitate toward mouthing, chewing and sucking may be doing so because their mouth is somewhat undersensitive and require more in-the-mouth input to satisfy that need. Mouthers are often the same kids who drooled past babyhood, experienced a speech delay, or are messy eaters.
While these behaviors are generally harmless, you'll want to redirect if your child's habit is a germ fest, a choking hazard, or otherwise harmful. However, instead of snapping at your child, find ways to help with his development.
If your child continues to chew on objects while watching tv, you may want to consider handing him a gum. Gum chewing is a safe alternative for children over four years old and increases alertness and enhances cognition.
Rocking and spinning– While a kid who rocks herself to sleep may seem worlds apart from one who spins in circles after a long day of school, Parents magazine explained that they are not. Both are working hard to jostle the fluid, the hairs, and the tiny calcium-carbonate crystals in their inner ears that make up the vestibular system, which monitors motion and balance, Dr. Lucy Jane Miller, clinical director of STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder, in Colorado, said.
Kids who naturally rock, spin, swing, or bounce likely have a vestibular system that requires more movement than most because they have a lower-than-average sensitivity to the stimuli. The key with these quirks is knowing when enough is enough.
“There's something called an inverted U-curve,” says Dr. Miller. “When a child spins, her arousal goes up, and her ability to stay calm and focused improves. That is until she gets to the top of the curve when arousal continues to go up, but performance goes down.”
However, Dr. Miller warned that going overboard can bring on both immediate and delayed sensory-overload issues. “It's important to work with your child, and possibly an occupational therapist, to pinpoint the top of the curve,” says Dr. Miller.
As rockers and spinners age, their habits often morph too. They may go on to like activities such as horseback riding, gymnastics, or swimming.
Sniffing things- Some kids are sniffers. Experts said smell is the one sensory system that connects directly with the limbic system, which is the brain's emotion, memory, and pleasure center. Kids often sniff things that conjure up pleasant memories that they find comforting, according to Parents. These soothing smells can help a child feel more safe and secure—or relaxed enough to facilitate sleep.
Fidgeting- “Touching, feeling, squeezing, poking, hair twirling, and all other similar forms of fidgeting generate sensations that feed a child's hunger for touch—and often his need for a very specific type of small movement as well,” said Dr. Miller (Parents). According to Frontiers in Psychology, the body releases the feel-good neurotransmitter oxytocin in response to finger and hand tactile-seeking movements, like repeatedly touching a soft tag or gently stroking one's hair.
Beyond the calming effect, fidgeting can help kids concentrate too. “We know that all children move more during challenging mental activities than they do during ones that are less challenging,” Dr. Michael J. Kofler, associate professor of psychology at Florida State University, explained. “Children are using small movements to stimulate their brain. For some kids, particularly those with ADHD, the fidgeting helps keep their brain engaged and bolsters working memory.”
When a quirk is a big deal- According to Parents magazine, Sara O'Rourke, an occupational therapist, said if your child's behavior interferes with his everyday functioning, for example, he's so bothered by noise that he hates recess or won't ride the school bus, it could be a sign of a sensory-processing disorder. Kids with the condition can't respond appropriately to the signals coming from their senses, while those with normal quirks have found a way to self-regulate.
If you're concerned, talk to your child's pediatrician, who can refer you to an occupational therapist for strategies. And keep in mind: It's okay if you're embarrassed by your child's quirk.
“That's a valid feeling that parents experience,” said Dr. Lucy Jane Miller of STAR Institute. “We want our kids to fit in, and we don't want others to judge them.” While a quirk itself is likely no biggie to children, one study in the Seminars in Pediatric Neurology found that their frustration mounts when their parents and teachers try to stop their behavior.
So before you do, ask yourself: Is my child embarrassed? If not, and the quirk doesn't interfere with other aspects of life, ignore it and know that other kids fulfill their sensory needs too—kind of like how you chew gum instead of putting Legos in your mouth.