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Autism

What Is Autistic Stimming?

Why stimming may help autistic people regulate their emotions.

Key points

  • "Stimming" refers to self-stimulating behaviors.
  • Stimming is one of the diagnostic criteria for autism.
  • People with autism may stim to cope with sensory overload, to communicate, to deal with boredom and agitation, or when they are calm.
  • Stimming performs a range of functions and is something many autistic people can't control.

The word “stimming” refers to “self-stimulating behaviour,” one of the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder. When laypeople think of autistic stimming behaviours, they tend to think of head banging, hand flapping, or sitting on the ground and twirling over and over. But stimming can be far more subtle, and a range of behaviours fall into this category.

Stimming is not exclusive to those with autism. And for those with or without autism, who may have engaged in certain behaviours for their entire life, it’s often difficult to recognise one's own stimming behaviours. As a personal example, I only discovered a few years ago that I stimmed. My list of stims includes: thumb sucking, rubbing feet together, rocking, listening to the same song over and over, and rubbing my leg. Even more subtle, I spend ages mentally playing the same piano tune repeatedly (even though I haven’t played an actual piano for years).

sifotography, 123rf
Source: sifotography, 123rf

Common stims include:

  • Fidgeting
  • Pacing
  • Biting or chewing lips
  • Chewing pencil
  • Shaking leg or foot
  • Picking or biting nails
  • Cracking knuckles
  • Twirling hair

Some stims which are more commonly associated with autism include:

  • Random humming, shrieking, or other noises
  • Skin picking or rubbing
  • Gazing off into space
  • Repeating words or phrases
  • Spinning, twirling, pacing
  • Tapping on ears or objects
  • Rubbing material
  • Tasting or licking—including thumb sucking, finger sucking, or tasting things people ordinarily wouldn’t taste

Stimming is Self-Soothing

Personally, I know that I tend to stim when I’m either stressed or over-stimulated and am in the process of trying to calm down; I may also stim when I’m already calm, as stimming can be an enjoyable behaviour that takes me to a very zoned-out place.

In general, people with autism experience the world differently, often in a heightened way. They may experience sensory overload when, for instance, they’re in a place with bright lights and sounds (such as a shopping mall), or when they’re in a social situation. Engaging in stimming behaviours such as rocking, repeating words, or skin-picking can help them cope with their external sensory experience and can help them to stay calm.

Stimming Can Relieve Boredom

Many people with autism reveal that they stim when they are feeling bored. When there’s no focus for an autistic person’s thoughts, they can feel frustrated and even agitated. Stimming can help manage those emotions and help them remain calm.

Stimming Can Help People Concentrate

Some people find that stimming can help them concentrate. My client Marie, for example, described how, while she was working, she rubbed a piece of cloth between her fingers. This action helped her maintain focus. Adrienne revealed how her thumb always ended up in her mouth while she was reading textbooks for university.

Stimming Can Be a Way of Communicating

Communicating feelings can be difficult for people with autism, and stimming may be the first sign that they are feeling anxious or agitated. I often start to stim—usually by vigorously rubbing my feet—when I am feeling anxious. My body starts communicating long before the thoughts have formed in my head or before I have found the words to express myself.

In my case, I start to stim without any awareness that I’m doing it, which has caused problems for me in the past. I was once at a boyfriend’s parents' house and was desperate to leave. Although I was saying all the right things to his mother, I hadn’t realised I’d been rocking and flicking my nails in my state of agitation. His mother never spoke to me again.

Is Stimming a Problem?

Stimming performs the function of helping autistic people to deal with a world that is often confusing and overwhelming. So rather than see it as a problem, it's better to see it as something that has a significant, and often positive, role in many autistic people’s lives.

When it does become problematic, however, is when it leads to physical damage—for instance, when skin picking leads to sore scabs or when head banging causes physical harm. And stimming behaviours that involve zoning out can cause problems at school and in the workplace when they affect a person’s ability to take in information or participate. And some people have suffered because of the attention their stimming behaviours have attracted.

However, it's important to remember that, in many cases, people with autism cannot do much to control their stimming—no matter what consequences it might have.

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