Stimming in Autism: Understanding the Process

Nail biting, knee bouncing, hair twirling, and humming; are all examples of stimming, many people do this all the time, and it is never really questioned. Stimming with autism, however, tends to be a bit different and is more looked down upon by the public. Stimming typically involves flapping motions or rocking back and forth but can be anything from scratching an itch to excessive body motion. The public often judges this behavior harshly because they don't understand what stimming is and the reason for doing it. 

What Exactly is Stimming

Stimming, also known as self-stimulatory behavior, is defined as repetitive movements, sounds, and patterns that some individuals perform to up-regulate and relieve tension. Stimming is common and often seen as a coping mechanism for stressful situations.


Child on ground with puzzle



Stimming in Autism

At its core, stimming is a way for individuals to self-soothe and gain control over their emotions and surroundings. Stimming in autism, however, can be more exaggerated or profound than how people fidget for comfort. Because of this, we must understand what stimming looks like with autism and why we should show compassion and understanding toward those who experience it.

Some examples of stimming behaviors associated with autism include jumping up and down, finger flicking, humming loudly, rocking back and forth, flapping arms profusely, or unusual body movements. 

Stims like these are viewed as disruptive or socially inappropriate. But it's important to remember that stimming is a coping mechanism for children with autism, and we should be mindful of this when interacting with them.

Pros to Stimming

Stimming can be both helpful and adaptive in certain situations. Stimming helps to regulate the nervous system and reduce anxiety in social situations, making it an essential part of managing autism. 

Stimming can help individuals on the autism spectrum better regulate their emotions and maintain focus when they feel stressed or overwhelmed. For example, if someone is overwhelmed by their surroundings, rocking back and forth allows them to cope with that particular experience and not stress about the surrounding environment. 

Children and people stim to cope and relieve stress, and it should be acknowledged as a normal behavior as long as they do not harm themselves or anyone around them.

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Cons to Stimming?

Despite its benefits, stimming can be misunderstood by those who are unfamiliar with autism. Stimming behaviors like finger flicking or loud humming may seem odd or out of place to those without autism. And because people with autism often exhibit these behaviors more intensely than others, they can also attract unwanted attention or scrutiny from others in their environment.

While stimming can be a helpful way for children with autism to self-regulate and cope with stress, it is vital to remember that these behaviors can sometimes become harmful or disruptive. For example, if someone is stimming by rocking back and forth intensely, they may not have the awareness or ability to stop themselves from moving. This could lead to injury if they accidentally fall over or knock into something dangerous. 

It is important to be aware of self-harm stimming behavior, such as head banging, slapping, hair pulling, and nail-biting. Therefore, parents must provide support and guidance to stimming children to help them find a more comfortable and less disruptive way to stim.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when dealing with a stimming child is that this behavior can result from anxiety or stress. Stimming often serves as an outlet for these emotions, and it is, therefore, crucial that we provide a safe and supportive environment so that they can better cope with their feelings. This might involve giving comfort, offering reassurance, or simply being understanding and non-judgmental.


Child sitting on ground being held



How to Manage Stimming

Several different techniques can be used to help manage stimming in children. 

Redirect the child's focus by providing them with an alternative activity or interest; this can be through a coloring book or a tablet with their favorite show. 

Help them calm down through deep breathing exercises or meditation techniques; this can soothe your child during times when they can't seem to stop stimming.  

Find ways to reduce their stress and anxiety levels by avoiding certain places where the child seems to get triggered. 

Other methods include taking time out for regular breaks from school work and using sensory tools like weighted blankets or fidget toys to prevent harmful stimming. 

It is also essential to work with your child to find the most appropriate way for them to stim and let them know what stims are ok and which are not allowed.

Another important consideration is safety. Stimming behaviors involving excessive movement or noise could lead to injury if not properly managed. For this reason, parents need to pay attention and intervene if necessary when a child is stimming particularly intensely.

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Understanding the Stimmer

Stimming is a common and essential part of autism, but it is also important to understand its potential risks and how to manage stimming safely. To effectively support a child who exhibits stimming behaviors, parents should be able to work with their child to find appropriate tools and strategies for stimming and, at the same time, keep an eye out for potential safety concerns. 

It is essential to treat non-harmful stimming like any other person you would see twirling their hair in public or humming. Just because it seems unusual doesn't mean you should glare or judge.

Stimming is a common occurrence in individuals with autism, and it can take many different forms. While stimming can help to relieve stress and anxiety for some people, it can also be a hazard if it becomes excessive or self-harming. 

Whether using positive reinforcement or finding other calming methods, these approaches can help minimize any negative impacts of stimming while keeping everyone safe. With proper management and support, both parent and child can learn to better cope with stimming in autism.

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