Stimming – helpful not harmful
Stimming or ‘self-stimulatory behaviour is repetitive actions or movements that stimulate the senses in a certain way. Everybody stims in some way. Whether it’s biting your nails, flicking the lid of a pen, jiggling your leg. It is common for most people. Focusing on the repetitive nature of a movement can often help us in situations we may find overwhelming and a habit we’re not even aware of.
Stimming and autism
Whilst many people may stim throughout the day, it is not always obvious to others. For autistic individuals, this may be more pronounced. It may look like whole-body movements, flapping of hands, or twirling in circles, all of which can last for long periods of time. Stimming involves repetitive behaviour. This can include obsessions with certain topics or items. It may also involve repeating words or phrases, staring at spinning or moving objects such as ceiling fans or wheels, humming, covering and uncovering ears. Many autistic individuals stim when they are feeling happy or excited, not just when feeling overwhelmed or distressed. Whilst most stims are not harmful, some repetitive behaviours can cause physical harm. These may include, head banging, hitting oneself, punching or biting themselves.
Why do we stim?
Stimming is an effective way to support sensory emotional self-regulation. Autistic individuals may have challenges with processing sensory information. When taking in senses from their environment, the body may over-respond or under-respond to stimuli, meaning it can calm or awaken the sensory system.
Some look to therapy for ways to stop the stimming from occurring. However, rather than looking to stop stimming, we should consider why they feel the need to do it. In some scenarios, stimming can be used to:
- Block out sensory input when a person is feeling overloaded.
- Provide stimulation to a person when they are feeling under-responsive.
- Support a person when feeling hurt, in pain or uncomfortable.
- Support managing emotions, both positive and negative.
Knowing why the person is engaging in the stimming helps those around them to adapt the environment to meet their sensory needs, understand the type of support to provide and when to provide it, or work with the person to develop a replacement behaviour that meets the same need should they be engaging in stimming that is harmful to self or others.
Benefits of stimming
Stimming supports regulation and helps us to feel grounded. An autistic person may feel a sudden rush within their environment, and stimming supports their way of releasing that energy. The autistic community are often encouraged to hide stimming so they can fit into social settings. It is important to consider that the purpose of stimming is to support regulation and a calming change in the body, allowing a person to function.
Rather than hide stimming, let’s move towards creating spaces that consider sensory needs and think curiously why the stimming is occurring.
Child Mind Institute. (2022, December 6). Autism and Stimming. Accessed April 2023 from https://childmind.org/article/autism-and-stimming/
Web MD. (2021, April 21) What you need to know about stimming and autism. Accessed April 2023 from https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/what-you-need-to-know-about-stimming-and-autism
About the author
Lisa is the Clinical Excellence Lead for KEO Care’s paediatric division. She has experience working in a range of paediatric environments, including schools, clinics, and most recently the community. Lisa has a wealth of experience working with kids and teenagers on the autism spectrum, and she has stayed passionate about and interested in this field.