What is stimming?

Key points:

  • Stimming is commonly associated with autism, but in reality everyone practises self-stimulatory behavior.
  • Children with autism may stim as a coping mechanism when overwhelmed or as a way to manage or express emotions.
  • Parents’ goal should not be to stop a child from stimming. However, in some cases it may be important to identify and address the underlying needs met by stimming behaviors, in order to reduce stimming that may have negative effects.

Everybody stims.

So why is stimming so strongly connected to children with autism? Is it harmful? Can stimming be managed – and should it?

Let’s take a look at some of the most common questions about autism and stimming.

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Defining (and destigmatizing) stimming

Stimming is short for ‘self-stimulatory behavior’. It refers to any repetitive action or sound someone makes, and it’s often done to help a person self-soothe or manage their emotions.

A few common examples of stimming behavior – some of which you may recognize in yourself, whether or not you’ve been diagnosed with autism – include:

  • Drumming your fingers when you feel bored
  • Bouncing your leg when you feel excited or nervous
  • Cracking your knuckles when you feel anxious
  • Biting your fingernails while concentrating on something

Some stimming behaviors are more common among people with autism, such as:

  • Rocking back and forth
  • Spinning or twirling
  • Hand flapping
  • Repeating certain words, sounds or phrases

Stigma and stimming in children with autism

There is growing evidence that stimming serves a useful purpose in both neurotypical and neurodivergent people. (This article provides a helpful introduction to terms like ‘neurotypical’ and ‘neurodivergent’.)

In other words, we don’t need more prevention tactics for stimming. We need a better understanding of it, one that recognizes some of the benefits stimming can provide. Rather than punishing or stigmatizing the behavior, we can support kids with autism by offering strategies to help in situations they find challenging.

First let’s look at some of the reasons children with autism stim.

Young boy exhibiting stimming behaviors

Why do people stim?

  • Coping mechanism: stimming can serve as a way of dealing with sensory overload or unwelcome thoughts.
  • Calming effect: many people with autism report they use stimming to manage or express strong emotions. For example, executive function coach Anna Nagel writes, ‘I stim when my brain is stressed, overjoyed, deeply engaged or trying to fit into the world’.

People with autism tend to view stimming as helpful. In one of the few studies to gather data directly from adults with autism, no one reported disliking their stimming behavior. One person likened it to a metronome for the body, helping them restore a sense of balance and rhythm. Another compared it to doodling in class (which can also have a number of benefits).

What are the positive and negative effects of stimming?

As already mentioned, stimming can help children and adults with autism regulate their emotions, especially when things get overwhelming. In some cases, however, stimming can have negative effects:

  • Aggression: if a child is interrupted while stimming, it can occasionally trigger aggression toward others.

  • Impact on everyday activities: stimming can, in some cases, interfere with a child’s ability to participate in daily activities, including school.

Young girl sitting on her dad's shoulders making shapes with her hands

What can (or should) be done about stimming among children with autism?

If you identify what triggers your child’s stimming behavior, then you can adjust their environment in ways that might reduce their need to stim. This can be especially helpful in cases where stimming leads to self-injury, impacts everyday activities or interferes with learning – but also for children who stim because they’re overwhelmed or anxious.

Here are a few ways you can adjust their environment:

  1. If stimming is the result of sensory overstimulation, try providing a calm, quiet space for your child, with fewer sensory inputs. A pair of noise-cancelling headphones can also be helpful.
  2. If stimming is a response to sensory under stimulation (boredom), try offering regular opportunities for engaging sensory inputs – for example, providing access to sensory toys (such as fidget spinners or push pop toys) or tactile activities (such as play dough or water play).

If your child is at risk of harming themselves (or someone else) with their stimming behavior, encourage alternate soothing or coping methods that achieve the same result. Stress balls and other sensory toys are a great option in many cases. If your child needs more support, consider working with a psychologist or occupational therapist.

Remember, stimming is a normal coping mechanism, for neurotypical and neurodivergent people alike.

It’s time we do away with the stigma and isolation many people with autism experience because of stimming. Instead, let’s create a safe, supportive environment for children with autism. Instead of trying to suppress stimming behaviors, try to identify what’s causing them – then work to meet your child’s underlying need. If the stimming behavior is harmful or interferes with your child’s everyday life, respond with positive alternatives and therapeutic support.

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