What is Stimming?

Mention the word Stimming to anyone who does not know a person on the autism spectrum and they will probably look at you blankly or think you are talking about gardening!

However, if you mentioned drumming your fingers on a desk, biting , twirling your hair through your fingers or tapping your pencil and they might think you are talking about habits that show a person is nervous, anxious or self-stimulating.

This is called Stimming; we all do it and it refers to self-stimulating behaviours which usually involve repetitive movements or sounds.

In a person on the autism spectrum Stimming might involve:

  • rocking back and forth
  • flapping hands or flicking or snapping fingers
  • bouncing, jumping, or twirling
  • pacing or walking on tiptoes
  • pulling hair
  • repeating words or phrases
  • rubbing the skin or scratching
  • repetitive blinking
  • staring at lights or rotating objects such as ceiling fans
  • licking, rubbing, or stroking particular types of objects
  • sniffing at people or objects
  • rearranging objects

How many of us have watched our children flap their hands or spend hours lining up their toys and woe betide any of us who would interfere with that activity.

I still remember the long lines of cars in our living room leading into the dining room when my eldest was young. While the hand flapping was a red flag the repetitive behaviour was a the clincher in convincing me to seek a diagnosis for him.

My youngest boy never really showed any repetitive rituals, but he did show obsessive behaviour and still does. Which just goes to highlight how every child on the spectrum is unique.

Stimming is not usually dangerous, but it can cause physical harm and some behaviours need monitored and addressed such as:

  • head banging
  • punching or biting themselves or others
  • excessive rubbing or scratching at skin.
  • picking at scabs or sores
  • swallowing dangerous items

My youngest had an obsession eating cutlery for a while. Turned out it was sensory, as he enjoyed the texture of metal! Thankfully he quickly grew out of that one!

So why do our children Stim?

Psychologists will tell you that most examples of Stimming are a coping mechanism that helps your child:  

  • Stimulate their senses or decrease sensory overload
  • adapt to an unfamiliar environment
  • reduce their anxiety and calm themselves
  • express frustration, especially if they have trouble communicating effectively
  • avoid certain activities or expectations

Like any child if they are after attention and if previous episodes of stimming resulted in wanted interaction, stimming may also become a way to continue getting that attention.

It is also important to remember that Stimming may also be as a result of pain or discomfort. Parents need to be aware that what appears to be stimming is actually involuntary could be due to a medical condition, such as seizures.

It's best to keep an eye on all types of Stimming and if you suspect a medical problem, see your doctor right away.

Should I try and control my Childs Stimming?
Like most things with our children stimming doesn’t necessarily need to be controlled unless it’s causing a problem.

I'd ask yourself these questions:

  • Has stimming caused social isolation?
  • Is stimming disruptive at school?
  • Does stimming affect the ability to learn?
  • Does stimming cause problems for other family members?
  • Is stimming destructive or dangerous?

If your answer to any of these is yes, then perhaps you may need to manage their Stimming.

Always remember If you or your child is in danger of self-harm, contact your doctor right away. A physical examination and evaluation may reveal existing injuries.

Otherwise, it may be better to manage stimming rather than attempt to completely control it. When working with children, the goal should be to encourage self-control. It shouldn’t be to control them.

How to manage Stimming

The key to managing stimming is identifying why they are doing it. We should remember that all behaviour is a form of communication. We have to work out when our child is stimming what they are trying to say.

One way to do this is to look at what has happened before they stim. What appears to be triggering this behaviour and what do they do?  

Once you have identified this you can try the following:

  • Do what you can to eliminate or reduce the trigger, lower stress, and provide a calming environment.
  • Try to stick to a routine for daily tasks.
  • Encourage acceptable behaviours and self-control.
  • Avoid punishing the behaviour. This action should be avoided.  If you stop one stimming behaviour without addressing the reasons behind it, it’s likely to be replaced with another, which may not be better.
  • Teach an alternate behaviour that helps to meet the same needs. For example, hand flapping can be replaced with squeezing a stress ball or other fine motor activity.

Consider working with a behaviour or other autism specialist. They can evaluate you or your child to determine the reasons behind the stimming.

Once the cause is known, they can make recommendations on the best ways to manage the behaviour.

Recommendations may include:

  • intervening during any unsafe behaviour
  • knowing when not to respond
  • advising other family members on how they can help
  • reinforcing acceptable behaviour
  • creating a safe environment
  • suggesting alternate activities that provide the desired effect
  • teaching self-management tools
  • working with occupational therapists, educators, and the educational system
  • seeking medical help when needed

I have learned over the years that Stimming behaviours come and go and evolve as the child grows. Yes they can become worse during times of stress but they can also be a comfort for the child.

Remember with your help and support your child can and will learn to manage Stimming in a positive manner and I hope this article has helped.