Are you familiar with the term “stimming“? Have you heard of it before, or noticed someone doing it? Do you know what it means? If not, don’t worry — in this blog post, we’re going to break down what stimming is and how it relates to autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

We’ll explore why people do these behaviors, how to recognize them, and when interventions may be helpful. By the end of this article, you will have a better understanding of stimming so that if ever encountered with a situation involving stimming behavior again, you’ll feel more prepared!

What is stimming?

The term “stimming,” which is an abbreviation for “self-stimulatory behaviors,” refers to the conduct of an individual who engages in repetitive motions or sounds. Every one of the five senses can be involved in stimming, which is often referred to as “stereotypic behavior.”

Stimming is included as one of the criteria for diagnosing autism in the DSM-5 (diagnosis manual), which states that autism can be identified by “stereotypes or repeated motor movements, usage of objects or speech.” This self-soothing process is notably visible in people who have autism and can be exploited by those individuals.

How stimming can look like?

Stimming can take on a wide variety of forms, and various people’s versions of the behavior might look very different from one another. There are many different types of stimming. Stimming is not limited to autistic persons; everyone does it. Stimming can refer to any sound or movement that someone makes in order to stimulate themselves.

You might, for instance, wiggle your toes, chew on your fingernails or thumb, twist your hair, or bounce your leg. People may find that engaging in these behaviors is both regulating and comfortable for them!

Stimming is a repetitive behavior that can be seen in people with autism who are looking for ways to self-stimulate. Stimming is not a symptom of autism in and of itself.

Physical (Vestibular) Stimming

  • Rocking back and forth
  • Jumping
  • Jiggling one’s leg or foot
  • Hanging upside down
  • Spinning
  • Tensing body

Tactile Stimming

  • Flapping or hands/arms
  • Tapping or wiggling fingers
  • Snapping with fingers
  • Rubbing or scratching
  • Opening and closing fists

Auditory Stimming

  • Repeating speech, songs, movie/book lines
  • Covering ears
  • Making repetitive noises
  • Humming, grunting, chomping teeth

Visual Stimming

  • Organizing toys/objects in specific ways
  • Repetitive blinking
  • Turning lights on/off

Oral Stimming

  • Chewing on mouth or objects
  • Licking
  • Sucking on toys/objects
  • Smelling

Is it helpful?

Since everybody stims in some way, it is not a cause for concern! It can be used as a helpful strategy for self-regulation.

Like any kind of body language, stimming is a form of communication. For example, if someone is tapping a pencil repeatedly, you may assume they’re feeling nervous about something.

People may stim because they are in a new environment, feeling anxiety, or having difficulty communicating otherwise.

Sensory processing is when the body recognizes a new environment and understands how to act in that environment. People on the autism spectrum typically experience difficulty with sensory processing, and this can lead to stimming to regulate sensory experiences.

  • Understimulation is when there is not enough  sensory input or feelings, so the person may stim their own stimulation of their senses.
  • Overstimulation is where there are too many sensory inputs, and the person may stim to control the overwhelmed feeling they have.

Stimming behavior is a good indicator of whether or not a person is overstimulated or understimulated. In general, you can tell by looking at a person’s level of stimming behavior.

For instance, if they are understimulated and are stimming in order to create sensory input, they may be showing a stimming activity that makes them laugh and gets them highly happy.

If they are overstimulated and overwhelmed, their stimming may become particularly repetitive, and they may give the impression that they are anxious or upset as they work through the process of calming themselves down.

Managing Stimming

Stimming is a natural way every human navigates situations and feelings. People function better when they are allowed to stim! There’s no reason to be concerned unless the stimming is destructive, dangerous, or significantly impacts someone’s daily life.

If your child stims in a way that endangers them, there are ways to manage it. Self-regulation is the ability to control one’s actions, emotions, and urges. While stimming is a form of self-regulation, it is important to try to understand why your child is seeking to self-regulate.

Are they feeling upset? Excited? Anxious? Helping your child to reflect on their feelings can help them clearly identify their emotions before they begin to stim.

There are different ways for children of all ages and abilities to practice identifying their emotions:

  • Visual pictures of different emotions that children can explore and identify with
  • Watching videos about feelings
  • Talking about their feelings
  • Drawing or writing about how they feel
  • Mindfulness activities like yoga or meditation

When children practice self-reflection, they can develop the ability to self-regulate in difficult situations in safe, effective ways.

It’s important to create a calm, safe environment for children to have if they are feeling under overstimulated and want to stim. Creating a space at home or in their bedroom that is calm, quiet, and comfortable and will allow them an “escape” when they are experiencing their feelings too strongly. A cozy bean bag chair, soft lights, a weighted blanket, eye mask, or some essential oils are just a few ideas that can be included in a calming space!

For children who may experience feeling under-stimulated more often, exercise can be a wonderful outlet to focus on something and release energy. Running or swimming are two examples of engaging exercises that children can do to release tensions. Exercising and keeping the body busy may help in reducing stimming. A mini trampoline is also a great way to release tension for children with autism.

There are also toys created specifically for stimming! Stim toys, also called fidgets, are small objects and toys that kids can play with to keep their hands and minds stimulated! These can be squeeze toys like small balls, tactile toys like a Rubik’s Cube, or moldable toys like a piece of putty. There are lots of fidget toys available that appeal to different senses. Your child may enjoy using everyday objects such as a teething toy, beads, pom poms, rubber bands, and more!

If your child’s stimming feels unmanageable, if they are communicating through their stimming that they are unregulated, or if their stimming is impacting their life in a negative way, a doctor or therapist may help.

  • A doctor can help understand why a child is anxious and may prescribe medication if necessary.
  • A therapist can help the child develop self-regulation strategies.
  • Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) is a type of behavioral therapy that can help modify the stimming behaviors.
  • Occupational therapies can help address the child’s specific needs and find objects that can soothe them.

It’s important to be patient while children navigate the world around them. Stimming is a way to cope with a new environment or stress. Making sure the child is safe, comfortable, and identifying possible triggers in their classrooms, workplaces, or at home can help minimize their need to stim!

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