Living With Autism and Self-Stimulation Behaviors Called Stimming
For the majority of children living with autism, problems processing incoming sensory information or dealing with anxiety and excitement are common. Whether a child is stressed, bored, or overwhelmed, positive and negative anxiety can result in challenging stimming behaviors that embarrass or frustrate parents, siblings, and teachers.
While a stim can interfere with therapy, disrupt a classroom or child’s ability to learn, and leave a parent emotionally exhausted and unsure of where to turn for help, stimming is not misbehaving. It’s an unconscious physical response to stress or excitement that requires patience, but also an understanding of what these children with special needs are actually doing when they stim, and why.
Most Autistic Children and Adults Stim – What is Stimming?
The words “stim” and “stimming” are words used to describe highly repetitive, self-stimulation or calming behaviors that autistic children and people with autism do when overwhelmed by stress, anxiety, pain, or boredom. In addition, children and adults with sensory processing disorder (SPD), or sensory integration dysfunction (SID) as it used to be called, also participate in stim behaviors.
While many individuals have adopted mannerisms or quirks that help to relieve anxiety, such as unconsciously drumming your fingers or pacing when impatient, stimming in those with autism or sensory processing disorder is generally more exaggerated. A few examples of stimming are:
- flapping your hands, flicking your fingers, or grasping your hands together
- humming, grunting, babbling, singing, or chattering over and over
- clapping your hands, tapping your feet, shaking your leg, or jumping up and down
- rocking back and forth while sitting or standing
- manipulating objects: carefully lining them up, or constantly rearranging them
- spinning an inanimate object, or a movable toy part like a wheel
- tearing paper, toilet paper, or pieces of grass into tiny little pieces
- twirling your hair or pulling on it
- spinning your body around for lengthy periods of time
- facial tics or scrunching your face into awkward expressions
3 Stim Behavior Video Examples
The following videos offer three examples of what stimming behaviors look like. In this first video, the child is doing what's called a "visual stim." He's spinning a DVD and starring at it. This type of stim behavior can literally continue for hours at a time.
Autistic Child Stims With A DVD
This next video demonstrates what's typically known as "rocking." It's one of the major forms of stim behavior because it's so calming. Flapping and slapping are also common behaviors.
Stimming in the Gym
Rocking, Flapping, Slapping
In the final video, a young girl doesn't know how to control her excitement. Jumping is also common because it helps the child burn off excess energy.
Stim Behavior Caused From Becoming Overly Excited
Stimming can also involve behaviors a parent, sibling, teacher, or on-looker might find embarrassing or inappropriate. While any of the above stim behaviors can fit that description, kids with autism spectrum disorder have also been known to:
- pick at sores or scabs until they bleed
- chew on their fingers
- bite themselves
- bang their head against their headboard or the wall
- stand and stare into lights for lengthy periods of time
- squint and tilt their head from side to side
- stand in the middle of the room with hands over their ears, and scream
Why Do Autistic Children and Adults Stim?
Kids with autism spectrum disorders, as well as autistic adults and those with sensory issues, see the world differently. Many of them think in pictures and images rather than words. This creates problems when expressing their feelings and ideas. At the same time, sensory stimulation and movement is experienced differently than it is in neurotypical (non-autistic) individuals.
For those with sensory issues, sensory input can overload the central nervous system if the brain doesn’t have time to process what is happening. That can result in refusing to wear jeans due to the stiffness of the material, throwing toys, or temper tanrums. For some special needs children, their sensory disorder is more severe than others. Noises can sound extremely loud and cause discomfort and pain, or a child may respond to some noises but not others.
Vision can be unreliable with depth perception problems making it difficult to walk down the stairs. Sensory channels become mixed up. For example, sound may come through as color or touching something might produce a sound-like sensation.
Many people with autism also choose to shutdown when over-stimulated. Others have designed peculiar, ritualistic stim behaviors they find comforting. For many autistic kids, stimming is a way out of the situation. It is how they have learned to relax. While some individuals choose to flee when sensory input becomes too much, others caught in situations where that is not possible have developed particular behaviors they need to perform in order to cope.
The need to stim is physical, not emotional. When a person undergoes stress or becomes overly excited, the body releases adrenalin and other stress hormones to prepare the body to fight or run. Stimming helps to burn off some of that excess self-preservation energy. It’s like a relief valve. It helps the individual to calm down.
While neurotypical individuals can take a walk or cold shower to cool off, those with sensory issues or an autistic disorder do not have that option. Both good and bad forms of anxiety shut down the individual’s ability to reason and think appropriately. Plus, individuals with autism generally don’t see the connection between their feelings and their anxious state. Anxiety signals a problem. They want to solve the problem, not discuss how they feel.
If you attempt to discuss the problem or try to stop the stimming, it only escalates the situation. Stimming behaviors increase, rather than diminish, because it makes the individual even more anxious and upset. The main thing to remember is that those with autism or sensory processing disorder need this type of physical release. Stimming isn’t optional.
How to Deal with Stimming
As parents and caregivers, it is important to understand and remember why children or adults with autism or sensory processing disorder are stimming. Most stim behaviors make parents feel uncomfortable or embarrassed, creating a sudden need within the parent to do something about it. This often stems from the way our society is more focused on getting rid of symptoms, rather than finding the underlying cause for a problem or situation.
While self-destructive behavior needs to be dealt with immediately, and truly frustrating behaviors diverted or gradually exchanged for better, less irritating ways of dealing with stress, most forms of stimming physically help the person. They do not harm. It is the on-looker who finds the stimming uncomfortable, inappropriate, or embarrassing – not the child or adult who is doing the stim. For example, in the picture at the right, the child is simply wrapping his shirt around his finger.
Also keep in mind that the problem is not the stimming. The problem is dealing with anxiety. In the article “Looking at Self-Stimulation in the Pursuit of Leisure or I’m Okay, You Have a Mannerism,” Kate Moss asks parents to think about what they personally do to alleviate their own stress. That activity will differ according to your interests and what works.
The same holds true for kids with autism spectrum disorders or those with sensory issues. They have invented stim activities that alleviate their physical discomforts. Taking that away is like asking parents to give up their own favorite forms of comfort and relaxation.
People tend to view as odd anything that differs from their own perception. If something is not what they would do in the same situation, it is often considered unnatural. Most of these personal beliefs and preferences come from either an inability to see the world through the autistic child’s viewpoint or from a fear of being different, socially unaccepted, or somehow inferior as parents if your children don’t act as others think they should.
It is society at large and quite often school districts who view stimming as disruptive or inappropriate. For that reason, it might be the parent’s attitude and perspective about the stim that needs to change, not the autistic child’s behavior. Quite often, children or teens denied a way to eliminate their agitation and increased anxiety can find themselves escalating into aggressive responses that could have been avoided if they had not been denied a way to de-stress through stimming.
Schedule changes, sensory overload, or communication problems are often at the heart of the stim behavior. Anticipation about an upcoming event, walking into a situation that has caused problems before, or worrying about the outcome of participating in some form of competition can also create a need to stim. Anything that increases adrenaline levels will cause stimming behaviors.
When a Stim Really Needs to Change
If the stim is really something that needs to be exchanged for something more appropriate, such as biting, screaming, or ramming their head into a headboard, an Occupational Therapist can be of assistance. And that includes annoying behaviors such as drumming their fingers on the table or desk, or an insistent need to rearrange scattered store shelves.
An Occupational Therapist is professionally trained to find more appropriate ways of stimming. However, they do not deny the child or adult the stimming behavior itself. They merely help them find a less disruptive form in which to stim. For example, it can be less embarrassing or annoying if the child or adult begins to tap their thigh rather than the table, and jumping on a trampoline for a few minutes every day can greatly reduce built-up anxiety.
Keep in mind that autistic individuals tend to fear the unknown more than anything else because unpredictability doesn’t allow them to control their environment. A lack of control brings anxiety, and anxiety always creates a physical necessity to stim. That’s why autistic children or adults become anxious when events don’t occur as predicted, or when events or steps don’t follow a certain pattern or order.
To Reduce Stimming Reduce the Anxiety
The key to dealing with stimming is to help the child or adult find solutions to life’s unpredictability, but you will never be able to total eliminate anxiety and therefore stimming. For that reason, even trivial upsets can result in a strong need to stim. When you accept stimming as simply a part of the autistic child’s or adult’s neurological makeup, rather than an inappropriate behavior that needs to change, you can eliminate the additional stress and pressure that comes from blame.
Try to see stimming as a tool, rather than a behavior that needs to stop. It’s much better to look at why the child or adult feels the need to stim than it is to insist on some form of behavior plan that attempts to stop the child or adult from stimming. Check out autism therapies that use music, toys, or games to control anxiety, but don’t think that mild stimming can be easier to control than something more dramatic.
Although a few stimming behaviors do need to be exchanged for more appropriate or less annoying methods, the goal is always to reduce the anxiety that lies at the heart of the stim behavior.