Stimming: What it Is and Why You Should Understand it Better

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Image by autistic artist Miss Luna Rose. Check out more of her art at http://misslunarose.deviantart.com/

Stimming, or self-stimulatory-behavior, is a very common trait found in many autistic people of all ages and genders, both verbal and nonverbal (though not every single autistic person necessarily stims, and you don’t have to have obvious stims to be autistic). Stimming is a repetitive body movement of some sort that stimulates one or more senses in a more regulated way than other sensory exposure. Stimming is frequently misunderstood, especially by the families of autistic children. Let’s talk about that.

What Does Stimming Look Like?

Stimming can take many forms. One of the more commonly observed methods of stimming involves the movement of the arms up and down very quickly in a repetitive fashion. This type of stimming is often called “flapping.” Stimming can also involve making vocal sounds, rocking, smelling, licking, scratching, rubbing, you name it, if it involves the stimulation of one or more of the five senses in a regulated, usually repetitive manner, it might be a stim.

Why Do We Stim?

I say “we,” because I, the author of this post, am verbal-autistic myself, and I most definitely need to stim. Remember how I said it applies to all ages of autistic people? The need didn’t magically go away when I became an adult, so make sure you don’t expect it to do so for your kids either.

For autistic people, the world can be a scary, chaotic, and overwhelming place. Stimming allows us to stimulate our own senses in a way that we control, which has a soothing and normalizing effect, helping us better deal with the chaotic stimulation of the outside world, which we cannot control. It also frequently serves as a release of excess energy due to powerful emotion or sensory input. For example, when when I get really excited or happy about something, I usually feel the need to stim. This kind of stimming is a very joyful, positive thing, and it feels pretty great. The soothing effect of stimming can also help us keep our heads together in anxious and stressful situations.

Stimming Is not Bad

On the contrary, it’s quite healthy and psychologically beneficial. Granted, harmful stims do happen, but rather than telling someone with a harmful stimming behavior (say, someone scratching their skin over and over again until it’s red and damaged) not to stim, try and help them replace the harmful stim with a harmless one (like shaking the arms instead of scratching them, or scratching a rag cloth instead).

Won’t People Stare?

Maybe. But so what if they do? Many autistic children are shamed for their stimming behavior, and told to stop. Parents may be embarrassed by their child’s stims, but trying to stop an autistic person from stimming is not only harmful, it’s doomed to failure.

As a teenager, I didn’t even know what stimming was, nor did I have any idea that I fell on the autism spectrum. All I knew was that when I got really excited or anxious, I would feel this need to move my arms up and down. I tried to make myself stop. I didn’t want everyone to point and stare at the weird girl who did funny things with her arms. But I couldn’t stop it. When I felt the need to stim, the energy had to come out, and it would find a way. If I didn’t let myself flap my arms, I’d suddenly realize I was vibrating in place, or maybe clenching my fists really hard. I couldn’t stop it. It had to happen. Trying to stop it only delayed the inevitable and made me feel pretty crappy to boot. Now that I actually let myself stim when I need to, I’m so much happier and comfortable in my own skin. And if people in public look at me funny, I just ignore them; what they think of my stims is not my problem.

Bottom Line

If you have an autistic child, encourage them to stim to their heart’s content. If the stim physically hurts them, don’t make them stop stimming altogether, just help them replace it with a non-harmful stim. And if people want to stare, let them; they’re the ones being rude. Trust me, your child’s happiness and comfort is so much more important than what some random passerby thinks of them.