Have you ever wondered why your child flaps his/her hands, loves to spin, or makes noises with his/her mouth? This behavior is very common among people with autism and is called stimming. Want to know more about what it is? Why people do it? What you should do about it? Then read on!
What is stimming?
Have you ever bounced your leg, bit your nails, paced, or fidgeted when nervous? Jumped up and down, squealed, or waved your arms when excited? Twirled your hair or drummed your fingers when bored or thinking? Gotten the inexplicable urge to dance to a great song? Yes? Well, my friend, you already know what stimming is because you have done it!
Stimming is short for self-stimulatory behavior. It’s also known as stereotypical behavior or stereotypy. When a person is stimming, they are engaging in a set of repetitive movements or sounds (vocal stimming is another type of this behavior).
What is the purpose of stimming?
At its core, stimming is a way to decrease or increase stimulation, self-regulate emotions, and express oneself. In other words, it can drown out the world or increase sensory input, regain equilibrium when experiencing strong emotions (both negative and positive), and simply express happiness or other emotions! Many with autism explain that stimming makes them feel good and can even help them focus.
If we’ve all stimmed, why is it specifically associated with disorders like autism?
We all stim, but people with autism differ in the frequency, (oftentimes) type, and necessity of their stims. That is, people with autism stim more often and stim differently than neurotypicals. Their stims are also much more necessary to them than to the neurotypical population. As Elizabeth Alford, an individual on the spectrum, says: “It makes me feel uncomfortable when [it] cannot be done.”
What are some common stims among people with autism?
As Amythest Schaber puts it, there are as many ways to stim as there are people with autism! However, common stims among the autism community include hand flapping, rocking (can be either back and forth or side to side), spinning, humming, jumping, and mimicking noises.
Is stimming bad? Should I stop my child from doing it?
Is shivering when you’re cold bad? Is crying when you’re sad bad? Both of those things, like stimming, are ways for our bodies to cope with something. So actually, non-harmful stimming is the opposite of bad!
However, some view stimming as socially unacceptable; a person flapping their hands in public may be seen as “strange,” and it may make others around them feel uncomfortable. That’s why some parents, teachers, and therapists attempt to stop a child from stimming in hopes of making them fit in and appear more “neurotypical.” Their intentions are likely good; they want to prevent the child from being bullied and help them integrate as smoothly into the real world as possible. However, we at The Autism Site highly, highly discourage suppression of non-harmful stims. Management is a much healthier option for people on the spectrum.
As someone once put it, imagine if you were forbidden from scratching an itch on your arm, just because society didn’t particularly like it. That would be completely unfair, right? It can be very harmful to stop a child from stimming altogether. But if you want to manage the behavior, hang tight; we’ll talk about that in just a minute.
What about self-injurious stimming?
Needless to say, any sort of self-injurious stimming, like head-banging, biting, or scratching, is harmful to the person’s physical wellbeing and must be addressed. Not all self-injurious behaviors (SIBs) are forms of stimming; they happen for other reasons, too.
Kirsten Lindsmith, a therapist and woman on the spectrum, explains that self-injurious stims are used to block out all other sensory stimulation, as pain is the only type of sensory input the body doesn’t acclimate to, and it is always prioritized first over all other types of sensory input. To stop self-injurious stims during, say, a meltdown, she suggests removing the problematic sensory input first and then redirecting the behavior with an intense yet less harmful form of stimulation. For example…
- If your child is hitting himself, he might need tactile input. Put deep pressure on the part of his body that he’s hitting. Alternatively, use a weighted blanket, lay on top of him, or give him a huge bear hug.
- If your child is screaming, she might need auditory input. Provide loud music—particularly a favorite song. Some on the spectrum explain that punk rock or hard rock works best for them because it’s so intense.
- If your child is throwing things or flopping onto the floor, he might need vestibular input. Try spinning him around or get him to jump on a trampoline, if possible.
In addition, some with autism indicate that they have a propensity to engage in self-harming stims when they suppressed their normal, non-harmful stims for too long or have tried to “pass” for too long. This is one reason why we strongly advise against curbing stimming; it could lead to meltdowns and therefore self-injurious behaviors. Amythest Scaber talks a little bit about that in the video below.
What should I do when my child engages in non-harmful stims?
Everyone has different views on parenting and stimming, and we at the Autism Site respect that. Other than completely stopping a child from stimming—which, again, we advise against—there are a few options:
- Completely accept all of the child’s non-harmful stims—let them do it whenever and wherever they would like.
- Accept all of the child’s non-harmful stims but teach them to do it in the home or in private; e.g. excuse themselves from the classroom for quick, three to five-minute breaks if they need to stim during school.
- Redirect the child’s stims—replace behaviors like hand-flapping or vocalizing with other, more discrete or “socially acceptable” stims that accomplish the same feelings. Playing with stress balls, fidget toys, and other stim toys is way to do this.
- Figure out why the child is stimming and take action accordingly. Are the lights too bright? Is the room too crowded? Is there too much noise? Behavior is a form of communication, and stimming may be a sign that something in their environment needs to change. Remove or reduce the stimulus or stressor.
- Utilize therapy techniques or even medication to reduce excessive stimming.
What are the pros of letting my child stim whenever, wherever, and however ?
As long as it is non-injurious, stimming can be encouraged because:
- Many people explain that stimming helps them focus—whether at school, at work, or simply when listening to someone talk!
- It’s a powerful form of autism advocacy. People may discourage stimming because it’s stigmatized and viewed as “odd.” But how will that ever change if the public isn’t exposed to it? Stimming in public helps normalize and destigmatize the behavior—something many self-advocates find incredibly empowering.
- It’s a non-harmful behavior that feels good.
- It’s self-regulating.
- Stopping the behavior makes the individual uncomfortable.
- Stimming is a beautiful expression of neurodiversity. “Different” isn’t a bad thing. “Different” is, in fact, beautiful!
- It assures your child that the way they move is not wrong or bad (many adults with autism who were instructed not to stim as kids say that was the message that they got—that the way they naturally moved was wrong).
What are the pros of managing stimming?
Even when it’s not self-injurious, you may consider managing stimming because:
- It can be distracting to others.
- It can interfere with their daily lives. They may spend so much time stimming that they don’t do other things or complete tasks, for example.
- If your child’s peers do not understand why they are doing it, stimming may be one behavior that could potentially lead to bullying or teasing. It’s a very unfortunate reality. However, Musings of an Aspie says this of the subject: “I was an autistic kid and I can tell you for certain, stimming or not, the other kids already think we’re weird.” So prohibiting stimming may not actually prevent bullying or teasing.
- It can make people uncomfortable or even frightened.
What do people on the spectrum say about stimming?
Here are some fantastic quotes about stimming from people on the spectrum.
“When I stim, I often feel like an old fashioned boiler letting off pressure—sometimes in tiny bursts, sometimes in huge belches of steam.” —Kirsten Lindsmith
(On suppressing stims:) “It’s the equivalent to duct-taping an NT person’s mouth shut or preventing a nonspeaking D/deaf person from signing. You are taking away our natural language. You make interacting with the world that much harder.” –The Caffeinated Autistic
“I don’t think about it. I don’t do it on purpose. It isn’t a ‘behavior.’ It happens naturally. It helps me organize my thoughts and stay on task. It’s the opposite of a distraction.” —Cynthia Kim
“Stimming is like turning down the radio when you think you smell something burning. It’s a way of turning off other senses so you can make sure nothing’s burning.” —Lamar Hardwick
“Sometimes when I feel overwhelmed, upset, or angry, I need to let it out. I feel antsy when I’m overstimulated, so I need to move around and let out some noise. It’s the only way I know how to cope. It calms me down.” —Sydney Brown
“Aspies are engaging in stimming (stereotypies) not because we’re abnormal but because we’re constantly at odds with our environment.” —Cynthia Kim
Where can I learn more about stimming?
People with autism can be a great resource to learn about stimming. After all, they are the ones who have a firsthand experience of it! Check out the wide variety of blogs, sites, and videos from adults on the spectrum and hear what they have to say about stimming. If your child can communicate, you may even consider asking them about it!
You can also talk to your child’s therapist about it. But beware, because some therapists believe in suppressing stims—which, again, can do more harm than good.
A. Stout received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing through Grand Valley State University, graduating Magna Cum Laude in 2015. In addition to being a passionate autism advocate, she is a member of various fandoms, a study abroad alumna, and an animal lover. She dreams of publishing novels and traveling all over the world someday.