What Is Autistic Stimming? What Purpose Does It Serve?

Stimming, or self-stimulation, is a common symptom of autism.

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What Is Autistic Stimming?

The term "stimming" is short for self-stimulatory behavior, sometimes also called "stereotypic" behavior. In a person with autism, stimming usually refers to specific behaviors that include hand- flapping, rocking, spinning, or repetition of words and phrases.

Stimming is almost always a symptom of autism, but it's important to note that stimming is also a part of most people's behavior patterns.

If you've ever tapped your pencil, bitten your nails, twirled your hair, or paced, you've engaged in stimming.

How Is Autistic Stimming Different from Ordinary Stimming?

The biggest differences between autistic and typical stimming are the choice and quantity of stim.

While it's at least moderately acceptable to bite one's nails or twirl one's hair, for example, it's considered unacceptable to wander around flapping one's hands. There's really no good reason why flapping should be less acceptable than nail biting (it's certainly more hygienic!). But in our world, the hand flappers receive negative attention while the nail biters are tolerated.

For most people, stimming occurs only now and then. In addition, most of us are aware of and can control our stims (we wouldn't bite our nails, for example, while having a romantic dinner). People with autism, however, often find it difficult to stop stimming, or to be aware of and responsive to others' reactions to their stims.

Why Do Autistic People Stim?

People with autism stim to help themselves to manage anxiety, fear, anger, excitement, anticipation, and other strong emotions. They also stim to help themselves handle overwhelming sensory input (too much noise, light, heat, etc).

It's not completely clear why stimming almost always goes along with autism, though most experts say that it's a tool for "self regulation." As such, it may well be an outgrowth of the sensory processing dysfunction that often goes along with autism.

At times, stimming can be a useful accommodation, making it possible for the autistic person to manage challenging situations. When it becomes a distraction, creates social problems, or causes physical harm to self or others, though, it can get in the way of daily life.

How to Manage Stimming

Should stimming behavior be forbidden or "extinguished" through therapy? In general, unless the behavior is dangerous, there is no reason to forbid it -- but there are a number of reasons to manage it:

  • Unlike most people, individuals with autism may  self-stimulate constantly. As a result, stimming may stand between them and their ability to interact with others, take part in ordinary activities, or even be included in typical classrooms, community venues, or places of employment.
  • Stimming can be a distraction to others and, in some cases, can actually be upsetting. A child who regularly needs to pace the floor or slap himself in the head is certain to be a distraction for typical students--and in some extreme cases stimming can be frightening to watch.
  • In addition, of course, stimming can draw negative attention. Autistic children and adults are often socially marginalized because of their unusual or disturbing behaviors. 

Lessening or modifying stims can be tricky. Stims are a tool for managing sensory and emotional input, so simply punishing a child for stimming can cause far more harm than good. At the very least, the process should be slow and responsive to the needs of the individual.

Some approaches to decreasing or managing stimming include:

  • Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a behavioral therapy, may help individuals to eliminate or modify some of their stimming.
  • Occupational therapists can provide a "sensory diet" to help reduce the need for stims.
  • In some cases, stimming can be reduced with medications that address underlying issues of anxiety.
  • Environmental and social environments can be changed to make anxiety less likely. Smaller classes, quieter settings, and clearer expectations can all go a long way to lower stress.
  • Finally, some people with autism can learn through practice and coaching to either change their stims (squeeze a stress ball rather than flap, for example) or engage in excessive stimming only in the privacy of their own homes.

Sources:

S. Goldman et al. "Motor stereotypies in children with autism and other developmental disorders." Dev Med Child Neurol. 2009 Jan;51(1):30-8.

RL Koegel. "Extended reductions in stereotypic behavior of students with autism through a self-management treatment package." J Appl Behav Anal. 1990 Spring;23(1):119-27.

KS Lam et al. "Evidence for three subtypes of repetitive behavior in autism that differ in familiality and association with other symptoms." J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2008 Nov;49(11):1193-200.

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