• Understanding Autism from the Inside

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Stimming in Autism; Why it is a Good Thing

stimmingThere is often talk about ways to eliminate an autistic child from engaging in self-stimulatory behaviors, or “stimming” indicating that these repetitive behaviors and movements are undesirable, or non-functional and should be eradicated. The truth is that stimming is desirable, pleasurable, and necessary to the autistic individual.

What is stimming?

Stimming is short for self-stimulatory behavior, which is a repetitive stereotypic behavior commonly seen in autism. So prevalent is stimming in autistic individuals that it is a apart of the criteria for diagnosing the disorder. Stimming does not just occur in autistic individuals; everyone engages in stimming behaviors. Neuro-typical or “NT’s” for short, those without autism, routinely engage in behaviors such as pencil tapping, nail-biting, hair twirling, and pacing, which are all considered self-stimulatory behaviors. These behaviors are an outward manifestation of inward turmoil or emotions, or a reaction to outside stimuli. Stimming for autistic individuals is no different in the sense that the “stims” are also outward responses to stimuli or emotions, but the autistic individual has many more sensory stimuli that overwhelm their nervous systems than the neuro-typical person.

Why do autistic children and adults stim?

Stimming in autistic children and adults is often a response to overwhelming sensory stimuli, and/or a response to intense emotions that are difficult for the autistic individual to express. Many times stimming behaviors are the best way for the autistic individual to self-regulate and deal with the world around them. These behaviors are pleasurable and necessary for the autistic adult or child because it allows them to calm and focus their attention, and/or regulate the amount of sensory stimuli that they are being effected by.

What does stimming look like?

There is a sea of self-stimulation, or stimming behaviors, which usually involve one or more of the senses—visual, auditory, olfactory (smell), taste, tactile (touch), vestibular, or proprioceptive For more on proprioception and Autism. Visual stims can include staring at lights, flipping light switches on and off, blinking, or lining up objects. Auditory stims can include grunting, humming, and finger snapping, or tapping. Olfactory (smell) can include smelling or sniffing objects, food, perfumes, or people. Taste can include licking, or placing things in one’s mouth. Tactile (touch) stims can include clapping, scratching, feeling or rubbing objects, nail-biting, hair twisting, or toe-walking. Vestibular and proprioceptive self-stimulating behaviors can include rocking, head-banging, jumping, spinning, teeth-grinding, foot tapping, and hand flapping. These are some of the more common stimming behaviors that you may observe, but is not a comprehensive list of all possible stims or varying behaviors.

What should I do if my child is stimming?

If the stim is safe for the child and not harming others around them, do nothing. The stimming behavior is a way of your child to self-stimulate or regulate their own neurological systems, or a way to express their emotions. Stimming is a good thing; a way for your child to calm and focus. If the behaviors are undesirable, harmful, or disturbing others—intervene. You may be able to re-direct or replace one stimming behavior with a more desirable one. For instance, the child who has the need for tactile stimming, rubbing materials, touching things, or people, can be redirected at times to limit that behavior to a favorite toy, a stim ball, similar to a stress ball that one can squeeze repeatedly for relief. The important thing is that these behaviors are present for a reason. They could indicate a growing stress level, fear, or over-stimulation of the senses, and the behaviors are necessary to bring the autistic individual back in sync or harmony with the world around them.

Stimming is short for self-stimulating behaviors, and is a commonly observed behavior in autistic individuals. It is one of the diagnostic criteria for identifying autism. Stimming behavior is not restricted to autism as all people engaging in stimming behaviors, albeit usually to a lesser extent and can regulate their own behaviors. Stimming refers to a wide-range of stereotypic behaviors that usually involve one or more of the senses. These behaviors are a necessity to the autistic individual and allow them to self-regulate, calm, or focus themselves.

Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.