Everything You Could Ever Want to Know About Stimming

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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).

young boy running

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.”

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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.

Stimming is not necessarily something that should be stopped.

Stimming is not necessarily something that should be stopped.

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.

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.
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