What Is Stimming in Autism?

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The term "stimming" is short for self-stimulatory behavior. It is sometimes also called "stereotypic" behavior. In a person with autism, stimming usually refers to behaviors like rocking and hand flapping.

Stimming is a frequent symptom of autism. It is often the most obvious symptom.

Most people stim in subtle ways. Tapping your pencil, biting your nails, and twirling your hair are all examples of stimming.

Autistic stimming is usually more extreme. It differs from typical stimming in the type, quantity, and obviousness of the behavior.

This article discusses the reasons why people with autism stim. It also discusses some management strategies for stimming.

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Click Play to Learn More About Autistic Stimming

This video has been medically reviewed by Rochelle Collins, DO.

Which Behaviors Are Considered Stims?

"Stims" are repetitive behaviors that go beyond what is culturally acceptable. In the United States, for example, nail biting and hair twirling are considered okay. Hand flapping, though, is not considered okay.

In a person with autism, stimming usually refers to behaviors like:

People with autism argue that there is no reason why one behavior should be more acceptable than another. Still, some stims can be alarming to neurotypical people (those without autism).

For example, some autistic people make loud noises that may seem threatening. Some hit themselves or even bang their heads. These types of stims can be problematic.

Recap

Stimming is repetitive behavior that goes beyond what is considered culturally acceptable. It can include things like hand-flapping, rocking, and spinning.

Why Do Autistic People Stim?

Stimming is often a feature of autism. It is not really clear why. Most experts think it's a tool for self-regulation and self-calming.

Many people with autism have a sensory processing dysfunction. This means they respond differently to things like noise, textures, and smells. These things may be upsetting to them. The need to stim may be related to this.

Stimming helps people with autism cope with strong emotions, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Excitement
  • Anticipation

People with autism may also stim to help manage strong sensations like:

  • Noise
  • Light
  • Heat

Some people with autism may stim out of habit, just like neurotypical people do.

At times, stimming can be helpful. Stimming makes it possible for a person with autism to manage challenging situations. Sometimes, though, stimming can be a problem, especially when it is a distraction or it hurts someone.

Most neurotypical people stim only occasionally. They are usually aware of their stims. They can control their behavior and don't usually stim in obvious ways.

People with autism, however, may not notice the way other people react to their stims. Some may not be able to control their stims. Some find it stressful to try. Some people with autism may even stim during most of their waking hours.

Recap

People with autism stim to help manage strong emotions and sensations. Under stress, they may stim for long periods of time.

When Does Stimming Become a Problem?

Stimming is usually harmless. It can become a problem in some situations, though, including:

  • When it is constant. Constant stimming may prevent a person with autism from interacting with others. People who stim all the time may not be able to take part in ordinary activities. They may be excluded from workplaces and public spaces. Kids may be excluded from typical classrooms.
  • When it is distracting to others. In some cases, stimming may be upsetting. In a classroom, a child who paces or slaps himself is a distraction for neurotypical students. The behaviors can even be frightening.
  • When it gets negative attention. Simming behaviors may cause people with autism to be stigmatized and socially excluded.
  • When it causes injury to the person with autism or to someone else.
managing stimming in autism

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Managing Stims

Unless the behavior is dangerous, there is no reason to try to stop stimming. Sometimes, though, it does need to be managed.

It can be hard to change stimming behavior. Stims are a tool for managing unpleasant feelings. Punishing a child for stimming can cause them harm.

Management of stimming should start slowly. The needs of the individual should be the first concern.

Management techniques include:

  • Applied behavior analysis (ABA). This behavioral therapy may help people stop or modify some of their stimming.
  • Occupational therapists can provide a "sensory diet." A sensory diet is an activity plan that may help reduce the need for stims.
  • In some cases, stimming can be reduced with medication. Anxiety treatment can help reduce the need for stimming.
  • Reducing environmental and social stress can also help. Small classes, quiet settings, and clear expectations can reduce anxiety.
  • Some people with autism can learn to change their stims. For example, they may learn to squeeze a stress ball instead of rocking. They may also learn to only engage in extreme stims at home.

Recap

Stims can sometimes be managed. Therapy and activity plans can help. It may also be helpful to reduce stress in the environment.

Summary

Stimming is commonly seen in people with autism. It includes behaviors like rocking and hand flapping.

People with autism stim to help manage emotions and overwhelming sensations. Many people with autism find it difficult to stop stimming.

Stimming becomes a problem if it is constant, distracting, or attracts negative attention. In these situations, it may be helpful to find ways to manage it.

A Word From Verywell

Stimming is rarely dangerous. It can create other problems, though. It can be embarrassing for parents and siblings. It can be disconcerting for teachers. It may also be off-putting for potential friends and co-workers.

People with autism and their families should decide for themselves how much of their behavior should be dictated by other people's discomfort.

It may be possible to reduce stimming, but it may be impossible to eliminate it. Parents and caregivers may have to learn to accept the behaviors of an autistic loved one.

This isn't always easy. If you're sensitive to the judgments of others, consider talking to a therapist. Counseling can help you manage your feelings and frustrations.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are there stimming toys?

    Yes, there are toys that help with stimming. Often called fidget toys, they are small toys or gadgets that encourage repetitive motion using the hands. Many are available online and at a number of retail locations that sell toys. Fidget toys may be a healthy, non-disruptive way to help manage stimming.

  • Does happy stimming exist?

    In some cases, being happy and stimming can happen. People with autism might not exclusively stim when they feel anxious; they also may do it out of excitement or anticipation, two emotions that can be linked to happiness.

  • Can chewing be a self-stimulatory behavior?

    Yes, chewing can be a self-stimulatory behavior. It can include biting your nails, chewing on an eraser, or even chewing on toys.

    This type of stimming may be dangerous to a person's personal health, since it could damage their teeth or hands. Finding an alternative to these behaviors, such as anxiety treatment, may help prevent injury.

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