Stimming At Work And School

How does stimming impact learning and productivity? Is it possible to stim in a space that’s shared with other people, like the classroom or office?

Boy wears headphones as he does homework

This week we’ve been talking about both the positive and negative sides of stimming – what it is, why people do it, how you can support it and what to do when stimming becomes harmful or unhealthy.

Today let’s look at the impact of stimming on learning and productivity, and how to stim in a space that’s shared with other people like the classroom or office.

Classrooms, open plan offices, lecture theatres and meeting rooms can all be extremely stressful and demanding places to be. There’s a lot of sensory input from people talking and typing, fluorescent lights, computer screens, the smell of perfumes and air fresheners and cleaning products, uncomfortable chairs and the requirement to sit still on them. There are big demands on expressive and receptive communication, social skills and pretty much all of the executive functions, all day long.

So it’s not surprising that many people feel an increased need to stim while spending time in these places. And the fact that these are spaces to be shared with other people, and where attention, learning and productivity are expected, makes stimming a lot more complicated.

How does stimming impact productivity and learning?

Stimming can be an important tool for improving focus and helping to block out distractions. And on the flipside, being asked to stop stimming can have a detrimental effect on someone’s capacity to learn and concentrate.

Controlling natural impulses like the urge to stim is one of the executive functions of the brain (along with things like planning, memory, problem solving and attention). Carrying out these functions requires the brain to pull together information and resources from different areas, and keep an eye on a bunch of different behaviours all at once (like a cognitive supervisor). They are demanding things for the brain to do, so it’s tiring and difficult to do them simultaneously over a long period of time.

Stopping our natural responses takes a lot of concentration. The greater the urge, the more we have to focus on trying not to do it. This reduces the amount of brain power that we have left over to do any of the other executive functions, the ones that help us remember how to do something or learn something new.

It takes kids a long time to learn how to control their natural responses, it’s not something that comes easily to most so they have to work really hard at it. Autistic people in particular can have difficulty with all of the executive functions, including impulse control. And given that stimming can be such a strong urge for many people, it’s easy to see how trying to suppress that urge can be a huge brain drain.

So just like how making eye contact doesn’t always equate to paying attention, sitting still and suppressing stims doesn’t always lead to better concentration and focus. In fact, not needing to suppress these urges can greatly improve a person’s ability to focus and successfully complete a task.

Another way stimming can have a positive impact on learning is that there’s a weird and interesting link between our perception of our fingers and the way our brains process numbers. Research has discovered that the more aware someone is of their fingers, the better they do at quantitative tasks like counting and maths. This is great news for finger stimmers!

Like lots of autistic people I’ve spoken with, I often stim by counting with my fingers and have always had that strong finger-number connection. So it makes sense to me that these types of finger-play stims could be beneficial at helping us connect with and process number tasks. In fact, I recently learned a great finger arithmetic technique called Chisanbop where numbers are represented by raising or lowering different fingers off the table. It’s like a super stimmy finger abacus, and I really wish I’d known how to do it as a kid.

When is stimming an appropriate IEP topic?

You need to tread very, very carefully when it comes to stimming and IEPs. Stimming is done for so many reasons and is often an expression of positive feelings, so a reduction in stimming is not always a good or desired outcome. You also need to be very clear of the reasons for targeting stimming as a goal, and those reasons need to be directly related to the educational success of either the student or their classmates.

When stimming is having a clear negative impact on the student or their classmates (like flapping that invades others’ personal space or having constantly wet fingers), the goal should be to help the student find more acceptable replacement stims (see suggestions below) or to allow the student to stim at a more appropriate time or location. If stimming is causing social exclusion, don’t just target the stimming but also work on improving acceptance by educating the class about stimming.

Never punish someone for stimming or for choosing a particular stim. You might want to offer encouragement and support when you notice that they’re trying hard to manage their stims or using more appropriate ones, but punishing someone for stimming is like penalizing someone for scratching an itch.

Also, access to stimming breaks should be unconditional and never used as a form of reward. If the person has a need to stim, this should be accommodated without it being contingent upon successful task completion. This is counterproductive anyway since, as we’ve just seen above, trying to suppress a stim makes it harder to complete tasks. Knowing that a stimming break is coming up might be the only thing that’s helping the student get through a lesson. So if stimming breaks are part of the student’s supports, make sure they are given reliable and unconditional access to them.

How should someone stim in a shared space?

When we share a workspace with others, we have a responsibility to be mindful of things like personal space, hygiene, noise, distractions and anything else that might unreasonably interfere with other people’s ability to learn or do their job. Stims which encroach on these areas are inappropriate for using in a shared space, and need to be replaced with a more classroom- or office-friendly stim.

Appropriate stims for a shared workspace need to be quiet, non-distracting and hygienic. They also need to allow the stimmer to fulfill all their own obligations and expectations of them in that setting, like sitting at a desk, learning, paying attention, working quietly, being productive and getting work done on time.

So the goal for identifying workspace-friendly stims is not about stopping stimming in these places or trying to make stimming more socially acceptable, it’s about being able to stim while still showing respect for the people who are sharing the space.

Some suggestions for appropriate shared space stims:

  • Use an exercise ball for a chair
  • Use an abacus or Chisanbop to do math work
  • Take 5-min brisk walk breaks
  • Exercise at lunchtime
  • Stroke a lanyard attached to a pocket or belt loop
  • Pull on a retractable ID card holder thingy
  • Listen to a song on repeat (with headphones)
  • Twirl a pen through fingers
  • Fiddle with jewelry (Stimtastic make an awesome range of specially designed jewelry for stimming)
  • Fold paper or do origami
  • Doodle or take detailed notes
  • Bend paperclips

These are just a few ways to stim in a quiet, non-distracting way. There’s a big bunch of other suggestions in the free download 45 Classroom-Friendly Stimming Ideas.

Snagglebox Stimming Ideas cover

8 February, 2017 by Bec Oakley

What’s Next?

Tomorrow I’m going to talk about how to help kids understand their own stimming, including learning to self-manage their stims and how to make healthy stim choices.

More reading

This is a great article by Musings of an Aspie on the impact that suppressing stims can have on concentration.

Want to learn Chisanbop? Of course you do! Here’s a visual tutorial.

Bec Oakley is an autistic writer and proud parent, with an intense passion for 80s text adventures, Twizzlers and making the world a better place for autistic people and their families.