Child Development

What is Stimming?

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If you have a neurodivergent child, you may notice them flapping their hands or rocking back and forth from time to time. Usually, they’re normal and healthy self-regulation behaviors for kids on the autism spectrum.

Experts call these types of behaviors known as “stimming,” (or self-stimulatory behavior) and say that they can be very helpful for children to manage stress and soothe themselves.

In this article, I’ll go over what stimming is, as well as different types of stimming, how stimming relates to autism, the benefits and risks of stimming, and how to manage stimming if it becomes destructive.

What is stimming?

The term “stimming” is short for self-stimulating behaviors. It refers to any repetitive behavior that people do to self-soothe or regulate their emotions. Stimming can be any kind of repetitive body movements, noises, fidgeting, and more.

Although stimming is usually associated with people with autism and other neurodivergent people, even neurotypical people can have some stimming behaviors. For example, someone could bite their nails or tap their foot when they’re anxious. These are both common types of stimming even in the non-autistic population.

In fact, research shows that up to 20% of neurotypical toddlers bang their heads as a form of self-stimulation or stimming.

People often use stimming as a way to soothe themselves and block out excess sensory input. These repetitive motions could help you to release some anxious energy or calm yourself down when you feel overwhelmed.

Although some types of stimming can be self-harming, most types of stimming behaviors are harmless. They may appear alarming to onlookers, but as long as your child isn’t hurting themselves, stimming could be a healthy way for them to cope with stress.

Types of stimming

Often, when people think of stimming (especially as it relates to autism), they imagine hand-flapping or rocking. These are common stimming behaviors for children with autism and/or ADHD.

However, any repetitive movements or sounds can be considered stimming if their intention is to self-regulate, self-stimulate, or self-soothe.

Some common forms of stimming behaviors we see in the neurotypical population include:

  • Twirling a pen
  • Playing with hair
  • Tapping a pen
  • Tapping feet
  • finger flicking
  • Shaking legs up and down

There are other types of stimming behaviors that are more often seen in autistic people or other neurodivergent people. Stimming can involve all of the senses. Some common categories of stimming behaviors for people on the autism spectrum include but are not limited to:

  • Auditory: Making repetitive noises like grunts or humming, or covering one’s ears in response to a sound
  • Speech: Echolalia, or repeating words over and over
  • Tactile: Touching or tasting things repetitively
  • Visual: Blinking repeatedly, staring
  • Motor: Flapping hands, flicking fingers, rocking back and forth

Effects of stimming on health

Stimming isn’t usually harmful to kids’ health, and can even have benefits for their mental health (which I’ll talk about in greater detail in the next section).

But sometimes, stimming can become self-injurious. In these instances, stimming could become a bad thing for kids’ health.

Examples of self-injurious stimming are:

  • Head-banging, on the wall or an object
  • Hitting or scratching themselves
  • Hair-pulling
  • Hand-biting
  • Eye-gouging
  • Intense or forceful head-shaking
  • Picking at or rubbing the skin

These stimming behaviors, especially when they’re severe, could negatively affect your child’s health. For example, constant skin picking could lead to infections. Head-banging or shaking could cause a concussion or brain injury.

Benefits of stimming

Although stimming is sometimes self-injurious, most of the time it’s harmless — and can even have many benefits for both kids and adults.

Research shows that stimming can help people to:

  • Find relief from sensory overload
  • Be comforted in new and scary situations
  • Manage anxiety
  • Self-soothe during times of distress

Stimming and autism

Although anyone can use stimming behaviors, autistic kids often have a harder time controlling it. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has a unique set of symptoms. One of its core symptoms is repetitive motor movements, otherwise known as stimming.

Stimming serves as a coping skill for kids with autism and may have many different purposes. For example, stimming could:

  • Help kids calm themselves
  • Reduce anxiety and fear
  • Express frustration and/or anger
  • Provide comfort when feeling overstimulated
  • Providing relief from boredom when understimulated
  • Reduce or distract from physical pain felt in other areas
  • Help kids express uncontainable emotion
  • Allow kids to avoid certain activities or tasks

One 2015 survey found that around 80% of respondents stated that they enjoyed stimming. Most of them stated that they use stimming as a coping mechanism.

Again, most people use stimming to some extent. But people without autism could be better at self-managing these behaviors. For example, if a neurotypical person is drumming their fingers on the table, and they notice that it’s bothering those around them, then they could stop themselves.

Many children with autism have a harder time controlling their stimming, even when it becomes self-injurious or disruptive. But even within the autism community, there is great variation in the levels of stimming. Some kids on the autism spectrum don’t stim at all, while for others it could be a constant.

Managing stimming

Stimming behaviors can be beneficial in many different circumstances, and don’t necessarily need to be “managed.” The main reasons that parents may wish to find ways to manage or lessen stimming are:

  1. Stimming is physically harmful to self or others
  2. Stimming has resulted in social exclusion or rejection
  3. Stimming is disruptive to other family members
  4. Stimming interferes with learning and focus

For example, a parent may need to manage stimming because their child is scratching their eyes. Or their child’s verbal stimming is causing disruptions in the classroom. Some types of stimming, like flicking their fingers in front of their eyes, can get in the way of learning and focus.

The goal shouldn’t be to stop stimming completely. Everyone stims to some extent, whether they are autistic or not. Rather, experts recommend that parents focus on helping their child manage stimming so they have less of a negative impact on their child’s functioning.

Keep in mind that many adults with autism advocate for more social acceptance and understanding of stimming (from the non-autistic community) instead of controlling these behaviors. In one qualitative research study, autistic adults described feeling angry, belittled, ashamed, and confused when told by others to stop stimming.

With that said, there are many ways to help your child manage stimming if it’s harming them.

Rule out medical causes

Some behaviors labeled as stimming are attempts that your child is making to communicate something to you. This could be especially true for kids who have trouble with verbal communication. For example, a child who has chronic migraine attacks could be stimming to try to distract from the pain and let you know about their symptoms.

Always visit your child’s doctor to rule out any medical reasons behind your child’s stimming.

Use stims to create relationships

Although stimming is generally harmless, it could cause disruptions to your child’s relationships. Experts recommend counteracting this by creating an association between stims and relationship-building for your child. Continue interacting with your child while they are stimming, and Some programs suggest joining in with your child’s stims to create a sense of connection.

Make your child comfortable

If your child is often stimming because they are anxious or have sensory overstimulation, then try to change their environment so they can be comfortable. For example, are they triggered by certain noises in the house, and is there a way you can limit their exposure to the noise?  

Takeaway

Repetitive self-stimulating behaviors, or “stimming,” can happen in all kids, but is more common for kids on the autism spectrum. Autistic children stim for many different reasons, and these behaviors help them to calm themselves and manage strong emotions. Stimming can be alarming for parents, but it isn’t usually harmful. But if it becomes self-injurious, then you may need to find ways to help your child manage it.