Stimming: Questions and Answers for Parents

Have you ever drummed your fingers, twirled your hair, tapped a pen repeatedly, cracked your knuckles, or bit your fingernails? Then you have engaged in “stimming”—repetitive, self-stimulatory behaviors that almost everyone does when they are restless, anxious, bored, experiencing stress, trying to concentrate, or having a hard time putting what they feel into words. Stimming helps us spend a little pent-up energy, express ourselves, soothe ourselves, and focus our minds. In other words, by helping us regulate our internal state, stimming makes us feel better. We can even engage in stimming behaviors simply because they feel good. And, this is true whether we are neurotypical or autistic. But while neurotypical people can generally expect their stimming (usually just called a “habit”) to be accepted by others, autistic children and adults can face tremendous pressure not to stim.

 

What Is Autistic Stimming?

Stimming is among the core features in the diagnostic criteria of autism as defined in the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) reference book, the DSM-5. The APA refers to stimming as “stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech.” In autism, stimming includes a variety of behaviors such as hand flapping, pacing, rocking, clapping, excessive blinking, staring at lights or rotating fans, head banging, walking on tiptoes, sniffing objects or people, repeating noises or words (echolalia), finger snapping, touching objects or people, twirling, spinning objects, and so on. Most forms of autistic stimming are completely harmless, while some forms can be destructive or dangerous.

Autistic people generally engage in stimming for the same reasons that neurotypical people do: to help regulate their internal state, feel better, or do something enjoyable. For example, if an autistic child is experiencing sensory overload (e.g., from the loud sound of a vacuum cleaner), stimming can help them tune out some of that excessive stimulation. If an autistic adult is anxious about a social situation, stimming can help them calm themselves. If an autistic toddler is experiencing gastrointestinal discomfort, stimming can both soothe their distress and communicate that something is wrong. An autistic teenager might stim just for the joy of it—like twirling for fun or flapping hands in excitement at a concert. Autistic children and adults might stim more to better self-regulate during times of increased stress (e.g., illness, changes in routine, loss of a loved one). And, if a stimming behavior results in a desired outcome (e.g., needed attention), it may be repeated to gain that outcome again.

 

How Do Autistic People Feel About Stimming?

The best sources of information on stimming are autistic people. For example, William, a fourteen-year-old boy, explains the injustice of shaming autistic stimming and describes how stimming helps him take a break when he needs it:

“So many of us have stims, but only autistics get shamed for them. The grown ups I know watch trash TV, but this is called a guilty pleasure– not a stim. Some teachers tap their pens or bounce their legs. These are called habits. To stim you apparently need to be autistic.

The purpose of almost any stim is to go outside your current reality for a bit of respite from the wilderness of senses. Until I found out that most people have some sort of stim, I never thought much about why I do it. 

Turns out, we all need a distraction from reality once in a while. It’s totally rotten to make stimming a negative thing and much better to think of it as an escape hatch from the world.”

Ashna, an 8th grade girl, shares how stimming helps her think:

“I know for me, my stims are getting life in place. They allow gathered thoughts to float into file folders of my brain.”

She also describes the harm that can come from stopping her stimming:

“The thing about stims is that if I interrupt them instead of completing, some awful compulsion grabs my brain and forces me to stim harder. You stim, too, dear neurotypical reader. Tap your fingers? Chew your pen? I’m sure they serve a purpose for you. I really find it annoying that this isn’t called stimming when you do it. Next time you find yourself spinning a coin, ask about an autism diagnosis. At least then, you can own your stims like I do.”

And Amanda Madru, a woman whose stimming by hair plucking evolved into trichotillomania, describes how harmful stimming may need intervention and support to stop: 

“That was five years ago. The Prozac helps like nothing else ever has, but the urges to pull have never gone away, and in extremely stressful moments, I find myself rooting through my hair in search of that perfect strand. It calms me down. It feels good. Stimming generally does, which is why people do it.

My hair pulling is a harmful form of stimming, and I do my best to stim in less self-injurious ways, but in that, I admit I am not always successful.”

 

What Should I Do About My Child’s Stimming?

Depending on their level of awareness and the nature of their child’s stimming, neurotypical parents might initially find autistic stimming distracting, annoying, confusing, or alarming. We may worry about how others will treat our child when they stim. We may ask “What will people think?” or  “Can I make my child ‘normal’?” or “Will my child be bullied?” If you’re asking these kinds of questions, it shows you are aware of ableism: discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities. That definition can be expanded to specifically include neurodiversity: discrimination against individuals with disabilities and developmental and neurological differences. So, asking such questions means you already know that the world is likely to be a hard place for your autistic child—and not necessarily because of their autism itself, but because of people treating them badly simply because they are different.

Cynthia Kim, an autistic adult, highlights how ableism impacts autistic people in regard to stimming: 

“Oh, wait, I know: socially inappropriate stims are ones that draw attention to us. If you rock in public, people will stare.

And whose problem is that? Try out these sentences instead: If you sign in public, people will stare. If you use your wheelchair in public, people will stare. If you limp in public, people will stare. If you use your assistance dog in public, people will stare.

And if people do stare, other people will think they’re rude. Who would tell a Deaf person not to sign in public or a paraplegic not to use their wheelchair in public? But people tell autistic kids not to stim in public all the time.”

So, we parents of autistic children have some work to do. You can help your child by identifying and processing the misconceptions, assumptions, and biases that you (and everyone else) soaked up while growing up in an ableist society. (Parent Support can help you do that!) You can learn more about stimming, particularly from the point of view of autistic children and adults like those quoted above. You can also learn about how your child’s stimming—and the world’s response to it—is affecting them. If their stimming isn’t harmful, you can learn to celebrate it and support them in engaging in it. If it is harmful, you can work with a therapist to identify what needs the stimming fills and how to help your child meet those needs in a non-harmful way. When we listen to the voices of autistic children and adults, it is clear that stimming should not be stopped or even discouraged without truly compelling reasons. Stimming is a part of being human, whether we are neurotypical or autistic. And it’s OK to be human—in all the diversity that brings.

 

How to Find Out More

For more information about stimming or to discuss how our team can evaluate or provide services for your child, please don’t hesitate to book an initial consultation. 

Cynthia Good, MS, LMHCA, CATSM, IBCLC

Director of Perinatal Mental Health and Parent Support