What is stimming?

June 23, 2022
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Drumming your leg when you’re bored, biting your nails when you’re nervous, or twirling your hair for the fun of it – that’s what’s known as stimming. And yes, you probably do it a fair bit. Stimming is a completely natural act of self-stimulation that almost everyone engages in – often without knowing it.

Here we take a deep dive into what stimming is, what are the signs and when is a good time to intervene.

What is stimming?

Stimming is defined by experts as ‘self-stimulating behaviour’ that presents in repetitive body movements, noises, or habits. There is nothing wrong with stimming and everyone does it at some point, in different ways and, in many cases, without knowing it.

For many, stimming is easily controlled, especially when social cues allow us to realise that our behaviour might be negatively affecting others. For others, these social cues don’t kick in and that’s when stimming can become a barrier to learning and socialisation.

What does stimming mean for people with autism?

It’s common for children and adults living with autism to engage in stimming. While everyone stims every so often, people living with autism will often stim in different ways, sometimes more frequently, or more obviously.

Children with autism may experience excessive and repetitive stimming that can become a barrier to education and socialisation. If necessary, there are ways to help manage self-stimulatory behaviours.

Signs of stimming

Signs of stimming - Early Start Australia

Stimming can take many forms. Some behaviours can be more obvious than others, while some can be more subtle. Many people may not realise they are stimming. For example, someone jigging their leg under the table might be causing others discomfort, whereas the person may be completely unaware of what they’re doing. Often people with autism have difficulty recognising and understanding social cues and therefore are less likely to instinctively adjust their behaviour in response.

Here are some of the most common types of stimming behaviours:

● Biting your nails
● Cracking your knuckles
● Whistling
● Tapping your fingers
● Twirling your hair
● Drumming your leg or foot

How does it affect kids with autism?

Someone on the autism spectrum can experience stimming behaviours in several ways. In most cases, stimming is non-invasive and easy to live with. A person on the autism spectrum might stim in different ways, like:

● Hand flapping
● Flicking or wringing hands or fingers
● Jumping, spinning or bouncing
● Blinking repetitively
● Licking or touching certain objects
● Pulling at hair or limbs

What’s the cause?

Cause of stimming - Early Start Australia

We are yet to fully understand why people stim. It’s thought that people, especially those on the autism spectrum, engage in sensory seeking behaviours to cope with an overly stimulating environment or to stimulate certain senses in response to that environment. Repetitive movements and self-stimulating behaviours can help to distract and cope with particularly awkward, uncertain or overwhelming situations.

Is it a negative thing?

Stimming is by no means bad. Actually, it can become an important coping mechanism and help people on the spectrum deal with difficult or overwhelming situations. Self-stimulatory behaviour can help people with autism cope by:

● Increasing certain types of calming sensory input
● Decreasing sensory overload
● Overcoming anxiety
● Communicating impatience or frustration

That being said, stimming can also have negative effects both on the person and those around them. Here are some examples of repetitive behaviours that can be dangerous or cause harm:

● Excessive or violent head banging
● Punching, pinching or biting
● Rubbing, scratching or peeling of skin or scabs
● Sexualised behaviours

Know when stimming is a problem

Know when stimming is a problem - Early Start Australia

How kids with autism can manage stimming

Generally, stimming doesn’t need to be managed or stopped. That’s unless it becomes dangerous or isolating. If it is causing harm, learning how to help them manage self-stimulatory behaviour is important.

Here’s how kids with autism can help manage stimming:

1. Speak to the professionals. Here at Early Start Australia, our multi-disciplinary team of therapists can provide the support and advice you need to effectively manage stimming behaviour. Every child with autism has highly different needs, and any treatment will be an individualised approach to address them. There are evidence-based pathways in early intervention, such as ABA or ESDM. And common approaches that help are psychology, occupational therapy, speech pathology and behaviour therapists.

2. Reducing social, sensory, and other stresses can help reduce harmful stimming behaviour at home or school. At Early Start Australia our multi-disciplinary team of therapists can give you individual advice on how to go about this.

3. Stimming can sometimes be brought under control via the use of certain medications that reduce anxiety. However, always use medications with the advice of a professional and make sure that any side effects aren’t worse than the actual stimming.

4. Help kids learn to control or change their stims into less harmful or disruptive activities – like squeezing a stress ball instead of scratching or biting.

Summary

Stimming is a common behaviour that we all do now and then. There is nothing negative about stimming; indeed, it’s a good thing for many people to help them cope with stress or sensory overloads.

People with autism tend to stim more, and while this is generally a normal and harmless activity,
It can sometimes cause negative disruption to their ability to learn or socialise. Learning to manage stims can be a helpful way to avoid potential harm to themselves and others.

Where to get help

ESA Where to get help

If you’re worried that your child’s stimming is affecting their ability to learn or socialise, or simply want to learn more about coping mechanisms, you’re in the right place. Early Start Australia has a team of occupational therapists with experience in helping children with autism located in every State and Territory waiting to assist you. Find a clinic near you for more information on how we can help you and your family today.