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What You Need to Know About Stimming and Autism

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 21, 2021

Stimming is short for self-stimulating behaviors. While many people have a stim, the behavior has become associated with autism. What exactly is stimming, and how does it help people with autism?

Understanding Stimming

Stimming is characterized as repetitive motions that you may use to help you cope with emotions. Examples of stimming include:

  • Biting your nails when you feel anxious
  • Twirling your hair when you feel bored
  • Flapping your hands when something excites you‌
  • Jiggling your foot when you are concentrating

Stims may help to distract you, relieve stress, or calm you down. While stims serve a purpose for the person doing the repetitive behavior, they can be distracting for other people who are around them.

Stimming and autism. While many people have a stim they use to self-regulate, it’s not always obvious to others. You may not use your stim often, or you may know how to control the behavior.

For people with autism, stimming is much more pronounced. This is because people with autism experience senses differently. Their experience of the world is often more intense because their senses are heightened.

People with autism may jump up and down and flap their hands excitedly when they see something that interests them. This behavior is not considered typical because many people learn over time how to control these emotions and reactions.

Impact of Stimming on Your Health

Many parents ask how they can help their children to stop stimming behaviors in an effort to help them blend in with their peers. But stimming is very normal, if not widely accepted socially. Instead of asking how to stop the behavior, try asking why your child is engaging in stimming.

Common reasons for people to stim include:

Overstimulation. Stimming helps block out too much sensory input from overstimulation. An example of stemming action is making a “brrr” sound with your lips in a place that is too loud.

Understimulation. If a place doesn’t have enough sensory input — things to hear or look at — or if you are bored, stimming provides additional sensory input. An example of this type of stimming is clucking in a room that is too quiet.‌

Pain reduction. If you fall or bump your arm, your reaction might be to hurt yourself in some other way to take away from that pain. Many children bang their head or body to reduce other sensations of pain. Even though it seems counterproductive, medical professionals believe that this type of stimming may release beta-endorphins that decrease the sensation of pain or provide a sensation of pleasure.

Management of emotions. If you suddenly feel happy or sad, it may trigger you to stim. You may flap your hands when you’re happy or begin to bite your nails when you’re upset.

Benefits of Stimming

Self-regulation. Stimming serves a purpose. No matter what the situation is, stimming is a way for us to feel grounded in the moment and regulate our feelings. When someone with autism feels a sudden rush of feelings, that energy needs to go somewhere. Stimming provides an outlet for that energy. It allows the person to continue functioning within whatever space they are in.

Mental health. When you are able to self-regulate and process your emotions, you improve your mental health. If you have a stim that you think is embarrassing, it may be a challenge. You can try to channel your stim into a different, more commonly used movement.

For example, when you flap your hands, you can try pairing it with taking a deep breath so that other people can see it as a calming mechanism. This helps you to self-regulate without the added stress of seeing negative reactions as you manage your sensory input.

Risks of Stimming

Social Acceptance. One of the greatest challenges that comes with stimming is social acceptance. People with autism are often encouraged to hide stimming behavior so they can fit in. Instead, people without autism should try to see the purpose that stimming serves for an individual and make space for it in social settings. Instead of reacting negatively to stimming behavior, people can choose to redirect their attention to something else or acknowledge it with acceptance.

Self-harm. Some stims are harmful. Head banging, hair pulling, and biting nails may have health consequences. If you have a stim that is self-harming, talk to your doctor about finding new ways to cope. Pay attention to what is going on around you when you engage in self-harming behaviors. If you know what to look for, you can try to avoid those situations or find new ways to cope when confronted with them.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Autism Speaks: “Stimming to connect, relieve stress and cope with a pandemic.”

Child Mind Institute: “Autism and Stimming.”

Journal of Autism: “‘People should be allowed to do what they like’: Autistic adults’ views and experiences of stimming.”

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