Self-stimulatory behaviors with autism
What is stimming?
Stimming, which is short for “self-stimulatory behaviors,” is defined as when a person makes repetitive movements or sounds. Stimming, also known as “stereotypic behavior,” may involve any of the five senses. The DSM-5 (diagnosing manual) includes stimming as part of its criteria for diagnosing autism: “Stereotypes or repetitive motor movements, use of objects or speech.” It is especially noticeable in people with autism, and is used as a self-soothing mechanism.
What does it look like?
There are many different kinds of stimming, and the behavior can exhibit itself in a variety of ways in different individuals. Every person stims, not just people with autism. Any movement or sound that one does to self-stimulate is stimming. For example, you may bite your nails, suck your thumb, twirl your hair, or jiggle your leg. Those behaviors can be regulating and comforting for people! Stimming is not specific to autism, but it is repetitive behavior in a person with autism who may seek ways to self-stimulate.
Here’s what stimming can look like:
- Physical (Vestibular) Stimming:
Rocking back and forth
Jiggling one’s leg or foot
Hanging upside down
- 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
Making repetitive noises
Humming, grunting, chomping teeth
- Visual Stimming:
Organizing toys/objects in specific ways
Turning lights on/off
- Oral Stimming:
Chewing on mouth or objects
Sucking on toys/objects
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.
You can typically tell if someone is under-stimulated or overstimulated due to the stimming behavior they are demonstrating. For example, if they are understimulated, and stimming to create sensory input, they may be displaying a stimming behavior that makes them laugh and really excited. If they are overstimulated, and overwhelmed, their stimming may be especially repetitive, and they may appear anxious or emotional, and try to navigate calming themselves down.
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!
This article was based on the following research: