Stimming and Autism: Are They Related?

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on January 04, 2024
7 min read

Stimming is short for self-stimulating behaviors. The term “stim” is used to describe one of these behaviors, which can include doing an action over and over or repeating the same sound several times. You may use stimming to help cope with emotions.

While many people may engage in stimming, the behavior has become associated with autism.


There are many different types of stimming, including:

  • Auditory stimming. These involve your hearing and sounds, such as snapping your fingers, repeatedly touching your ears, or listening to the same sound over and over.

  • Vocal stimming. This type includes sounds you make with your voice or throat, such as coughing or clearing your throat several times, repeating the same word, or humming.

  • Tactile stimming. These include actions that involve touching or feeling, such as when you rub or scratch your skin, open and close your fists, tap your fingers on an object or surface, or flap your hands or arms.

  • Visual stimming. These behaviors involve sight, such as looking at lights for a long time or frequently blinking or rolling your eyes.

  • Vestibular stimming. This type involves movement or balance, such as pacing back and forth or twirling around.

  • Olfactory stimming. These stims involve tasting or smelling, such as smelling or sniffing things or people, or chewing on or licking objects.

  • Full body stimming. This type of behavior includes movement that involves your entire body, such as rocking your body back and forth or spinning around.

Stimming refers to repetitive behaviors or motions that you may use to help cope with emotions. Some 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
  • Banging your head
  • Turning a light off and on
  • Scratching your skin repeatedly

Stims may help to distract you, relieve stress, or calm you down. While the repetitive behavior serves a purpose, it can also cause harm if the stim involves hurting yourself.

Stimming in adults

Adults may rely on stims to help deal with overwhelming situations, too many things going on at once that affect one or more of their senses, or uncontrolled emotions and thoughts. Examples of adult stims include:

  • Fiddling with your necklace or bracelet
  • Pulling your hair
  • Flexing your feet
  • Muttering
  • Whistling

Stimming in babies

Examples of behaviors in babies that could be stims include:

  • Putting things into lines or groups again and again
  • Repeating unusual body movements
  • Repeatedly stiffening legs or arms
  • Repeating circular hand motions

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. For example, someone with autism may jump up and down and flap their hands excitedly when they see something that interests them.

Autism finger movements. Some stims specifically involve repeated use of your fingers, such as:

  • Shaking your fingers in front of your eyes to make it look like lights are flickering
  • Snapping your fingers
  • Scratching your skin

People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) also may use stims to cope with emotions. Examples of stims in people with ADHD include humming, biting your nails, or spinning an item repeatedly. If you have ADHD, you might use stims to help fight boredom, enhance your focus on dull tasks, or comfort yourself when you are nervous or anxious.

People with ADHD or autism are more likely to have a stim, and they may do so to help manage their emotions. But there are some differences. People with ADHD often rely on stims to help pay attention and focus more, whereas people with autism tend to use stims to help cope with too much stimulation or excitement.

Additional examples of stimming in people with autism include:

  • Repeating or echoing the words of someone else
  • Tiptoeing or jumping
  • Staring at objects that spin or move in circular motions, like a fan
  • Squealing

Understanding why you do a stim is often more important than trying to stop it, unless it is harmful to you or someone else. There are many causes or triggers that may lead a person with autism to engage in stimming, including:

  • Too much stimulation. Stimming may help if you are facing too many things that affect your senses, such as too many smells or sounds all at once.
  • Too little stimulation. Sometimes, your senses may need more action to keep you focused.
  • Wanting to stop or reduce pain. Banging your head or a body part has been shown to help lower the pain you may feel.
  • Managing emotions. Happy or sad emotions can trigger stimming.

There are some benefits to stimming, including: 

Self-regulation. Stimming serves a purpose. It can be 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 self-regulate without the added stress of seeing negative reactions as you manage your emotions.

There are a few potential risks to stimming, including:

Social acceptance. One of the greatest challenges that comes with stimming is social acceptance. People with autism may be encouraged to hide stimming behavior so they can fit in. Instead, people without autism should try to see the purpose that stimming serves 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.

Many parents ask how they can help their children stop stimming behaviors 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.

Self-harm. Some stims are harmful. Head banging, hair pulling, and biting nails may have health consequences. If you have a stim that may cause you harm, 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.

Stimming is not naturally a bad thing. Rather than trying to stop stimming, it can be helpful to learn how to manage it.

This is especially useful for children and younger people. Having a routine and knowing what to expect can help lessen anxiety, which may control some stimming behaviors. Improved structure and routine can be strengthened through food, transportation, and the order in which things are done.


Stim toys are objects used to help adults or children cope with or reduce their stimming behaviors.

For example, if you chew objects or your hair a lot, you could instead use a stim toy that is made for chewing. Or maybe your stim involves hitting yourself or hitting an object that causes you pain. Instead, you could squeeze a stim toy to help reduce the urge to hit something or someone.

Any toy or object that calms you or helps you make movements that soothe you can be called a stim toy.

Stimming is a common behavior and not only done by people with autism. It is helpful to understand the reason behind your stim, but don’t feel like you have to stop it unless it is harmful to you or others. By learning what triggers your stimming, you may be able to control it. If your stimming is harmful, you can reach out to a doctor for ways to stop or control it.

What are some examples of stimming?


  • 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
  • Banging your head
  • Turning a light off and on
  • Scratching your skin repeatedly

Is it normal to stim without being autistic?

Yes, stimming is normal for people who are not autistic. Babies and young kids may do stimming, but many grow out of it. But even adults have stims, such as finger tapping or toe tapping.

What triggers stimming? 

There are many causes or triggers that may lead a person with autism to stimming, including:

  • Too much stimulation
  • Too little stimulation
  • Wanting to stop or reduce pain
  • Managing emotions

Is stimming a form of anxiety? 

Not always, but it can be.