What is stimming?

Stimming is short for ‘self-stimulatory behaviour”- doing something to give yourself sensory input and involves doing something repetitive for the sensation it creates rather than the result it produces – and that sensation is one that your autistic child finds pleasing.

Stimming is a behaviour displayed by people with autism who employ it as a coping mechanism for particular emotions.

Stimming is thought to provide a pleasurable sensation and taking it away abruptly could have adverse effects and is not recommended.

Recognising stimming

Stimming can take many forms including:

Auditory stimming

Auditory stimming uses the person's sense of hearing and sound. It may include behaviours such as:

  • vocal sounds, such as humming, grunting, or high-pitched shrieking
  • tapping on objects or ears, covering and uncovering ears, and finger-snapping
  • repetitive speech, such as repeating song lyrics or lines from movies

Tactile stimming

Tactile stimming uses the person's sense of touch. It may include behaviours such as:

  • skin-rubbing or scratching, with the hands or objects
  • hand movements, such as opening and closing one's fists
  • finger-tapping

Visual stimming

Visual stimming uses a person's sense of sight. It may include repetitive behaviours such as:

  • staring or gazing at objects, such as ceiling fans or lights
  • repetitive blinking or turning lights on and off
  • moving fingers in front of the eyes
  • hand-flapping
  • eye tracking or peering from the corners of the eyes
  • object placement, such as lining up objects

Vestibular stimming

Vestibular stimming uses a person's sense of movement and balance. It may include repetitive behaviours such as:

  • rocking front to back or side to side
  • spinning
  • jumping
  • pacing

Why do autistic children stim?

Some people use stims to help them feel calm and relaxed. This may be because there is something particular about that movement or sound that soothes the person.

They may also feel calm because the stim is repetitive and predictable. Sensory stress or overload can also cause people to stim. They may find the action enjoyable or they may use it to reduce the effects of some sensory input. For example, someone may make a loud noise to block out a sound that they dislike.

Other people may stim to get more sensory input. People who are under-sensitive to their sense of balance may spin or rock, for example. Other common reasons for stimming are anxiety or stress.

Many people find it easier to cope with stress if they can do something that soothes them, such as fidget with a toy, make a repetitive sound or flap their hands. Most importantly, stimming is a form of expression and is just as likely to show happiness and excitement, as something negative.

Stimming could be seen as ‘autistic body language’. In the same way that non-autistic people have signs for happiness (smiling) and sadness (frowning), autistic people also have signs but they just might look a bit different. It may not look the same as neurotypical body language but it is just as natural and important.

Can stimming be harmful?

Some repetitive behaviours can be harmful to the person doing them. This can include things that hurt the person or cause physical damage to them, like if they are banging their head on the wall. They may also be actions that have become habit or compulsions (things that the person cannot stop), like a person who needs to wash their hands constantly.

It is important to separate out stimming, which is a natural expression of thoughts and emotions, and self-injury or compulsions, which can be very harmful. If a child is hurting themselves but the action seems to help them in some way, you should try to find something to replace the action. For example, if a child bites themselves, you could get them chewable jewellery or a biting ring so that they can get the same input without hurting themselves.

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