What is Stimming?
Stimming is the short version of self-stimulation or self-stimulatory behavior. It is a self-soothing mechanism characterized by the repetition of movements, words, or sounds. As it is commonly found among children diagnosed with autism, some professionals refer to the behavior as autistic stereopathy or stereotypy. It is just much easier to say stimming when describing these activities in everyday life.
Although stimming is common among children with autism, any individual can engage in stimming. Examples include tapping or chewing a pencil while thinking, repetitive doodling while bored, cracking knuckle when stressed, or biting fingernails when nervous. Just like the repetitive behavior is called “stimming,” some people refer to the selected repetitive actions as stims.
Scientists and anthropologists believe that stimming is a way the body centers itself in response to environment stimuli or relieves anxiety during instances of heightened tension. Stimming can be tactile (related to touch), visual (related to eyes or sight), auditory (related to hearing), olfactory (connected to the sense of smell), or vestibular (related to sense of balance). Because there is a strong association between stims and the senses, it is common for individuals diagnosed with sensory processing disorder to engage in stimming behavior.
While some stimming behaviors can seem quite mild (such as rocking slightly on feet while engaged in small talk), children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can display stimming that seems quite pronounced to other people. Examples may include arm or hand flapping, repetitive noises or words, repeatedly looking at objects sideways (for visual stimulation), listening to the same song over and over, head banging against hard surfaces, or hard blinking.
Since children with autism often use stimming as a form of self-regulation, they may not respond will if the parent appears upset or tries to abruptly interrupt, stop, or interfere with their stimming. However, it is perfectly understandable if a parent is worried that a child’s stimming will eventually result in self-injury or self-harm (such as scratching, slapping, or head banging against the floor). It can also feel frustrating when parents try to stop the stimming and only encounter fighting and resistance instead.
For these reasons, the best question is not “How do I stop stimming?” Instead, it is more helpful to ask, “What is the best way to discover the motivation behind stemming and how do I help my child?”
Common Motivations for Stimming
- Overstimulation – Children may use stimming in response to sensory overload. Focusing on one behavior may help the child feel centered instead of overwhelmed by sensory input
- Under-Stimulation – Children may use stimming to provide sensory input if their desired senses feel underactive.
- Pain Relief – Some parents are surprised to discover that children with autism may bang their heads to reduce an overall sensation of pain. Scientists also theorize that stimming release endorphins as a mild form of internal pain relief.
- Anxiety Reduction – Children may engage in stimming to calm the senses by focusing on one activity at a time.
- Excitement – Stimming may also be a way to process and express enthusiasm.
- Self–Management – Children with autism can use stimming express frustration or anger as well as provide themselves with comfort or relaxation. When managed further, stimming is a way that some individuals regulate their emotions later in life.
- Underlying Medical Condition – In some cases, nonverbal children may use stimming as a result of frustration with pain or distress that they cannot verbalize. If a child repeatedly holds or gestures toward a certain body part during stimming, get a medical exam quickly to rule out any painful conditions.
How Can I Help My Child?
Since some stimming can inadvertently cause self-harm (such as infections and serious injury), it is understandable that you may want to get it under control quickly. Stimming can also disrupt school environments and interfere with interpersonal and social skills.
You can help your child using the following steps:
- Schedule a medical exam to rule out the possibility of a physical distress causes. For example, some children bang their heads as a nonverbal response to migraines or rub their ears to indicate ear infections. The pediatrician may also consult with other professionals (such as a developmental psychiatrist) to provide you with accurate answers.
- Evaluate the sensory environment. Overstimulation may require removal to a quiet room or focusing on one toy at a time. Under-stimulation may require extra playtime outside or introduction to new toys and textures. Some schools also have sensory rooms for children with autism.
- Make exercise a part of the daily routine. Research shows that exercise can release endorphins and thereby reduce the necessity of stimming.
- Continue to engage with your child (instead of dropping everything when a “stimming episode” occurs). This is especially true if the activity you are engaging in is already a favorite of the child. The child may attempt to stim and play at the same time, but eventually, trying to do both will become uncomfortable and the child will choose the preferred activity instead.
- If the stim is not self-injurious, join the stim instead. For example, if the child’s stimming activity is to stack objects, consider buying blocks and stack with the child. In this way, the child can use the stim to increase interpersonal interactions instead of viewing them as an interference.
If you have further questions or concerns about stimming or therapy for children with autism spectrum disorder, contact The Warren Center for more information.