7 Questions About Stimming
All this week I’m going to be talking about stimming – what is is, why people do it, healthy and harmful stimming, how to stim in shared spaces and how to teach kids about it. First up, answers to some common questions about stimming.
1. What is stimming?
The word stimming comes from the term self-stimulation, and it means any repetitive activity a person does that gives them additional sensory or neurological input.
There are literally hundreds of different ways to stim. The Stimming Checklist (definitely check it out) collects submissions from autistic people about the way they stim, and their list is currently up to nearly 1500!
An important thing to know about stimming is that it’s a very individual thing, everyone has their own personal and unique stims. Some common examples of stims include repeating words, twisting hands, tapping fingers, picking at skin, pulling hair, rubbing hands or arms or legs, pacing, spinning, smelling things, sniffing, grunting, pressing into the eyes, waving fingers in front of the eyes, rocking, counting and visual stims like watching gifs.
1b. Is stimming restricted to only physical activities?
According to most definitions it is, but in my experience… no, it isn’t. People can definitely mentally stim on thoughts and memories, particularly ones that elicit very strong feelings and sensations. This type of stimming is rarely talked about, but we should because it’s super interesting!
2. Why do people stim?
There are almost as many reasons to stim as there are ways to stim, and again these are very personal and unique. Here are some of the more common reasons.
Stimming can be a response to both understimulation and overstimulation, giving extra sensory input where needed or helping to block an overload of sensations.
Stimming releases tension and pent up energy – happiness, anger, anxiety, fear, excitement. Really intense experiences and feelings can cause a build up of inner pressure that needs to be released like a pressure valve.
The repetitive, physical nature of stims allows concentration and focus, which helps lateral thinking and problem solving.
Focusing on one repetitive action can help calm an overactive brain or stop it from perseverating on unwanted thoughts and stress.
Emotions that are intense, vague or otherwise difficult to understand or experience often create a lot of stress that can be relieved by triggering predictable, calming feelings through stimming.
Stimming can be fun! Also, cheap and easy.
One of the most powerful effects of stimming is the release of endorphins to calm, reduce pain and generally make you feel really good. Stims that themselves cause pain are also used to mask or counter other forms of pain, which can lead to damaging self harm (this is a very important part of the stimming discussion, so it has its own article).
Stimming can be a natural reflection of how someone is feeling, much like a smile or a frown or a grimace.
Connect with the world
Many autistic people use movement and senses to understand the world around them and interact with it (a bit more on that down below).
Connect with self
I have a big disconnect between my sense of self and my physical body. I’m never very aware of where my body is, and I often feel adrift from it. Stimming reconnects me to myself and grounds me to my body like an earthing wire. This is why so many of my stims involve touching other parts of my body like pressing my fingertips together or rubbing my thigh or tapping my forehead.
Stimming can be a response to having to suppress the body movements that feel natural to your body (like holding in a giggle all through church and finally being allowed to laugh).
Lots of people ask the ‘why do you stim’ question and I think it’s important to remember that while some people can pinpoint the reasons they need to stim, others might not understand where the need is coming from, only that it’s there and it’s strong and stimming makes them feel better.
So if you want to help support people to stim in ways that are comforting to them, asking ‘when’ and ‘how’ and ‘what’ is just as important as ‘why’.
3. Is stimming only an autism thing?
Nope, everybody does it. If you think about it you’ll easily identify at least half a dozen of your own stims (maybe it’s bouncing your leg or tapping your feet, doodling, clicking your pen, twirling your hair). That being said, autistic stimming does have some differences.
First of all, not all autistic people stim. But those who do commonly describe it as a natural response to an internal urge, like laughing at a joke or frowning at something confusing. Many view stimming as an integral, pleasurable, positive part of being autistic.
There’s an intense relationship between stimming and emotional wellbeing that doesn’t often exist for neurotypical people, for whom stimming seems to be a ‘do it if it’s there’ kind of deal rather than a ‘need to do it, need to do it now’ thing. And interestingly, having separate stims for specific emotional states is only something that I’ve heard autistic people describe.
Autistic stimming often seems more noticeable because it involves movements considered to be odd or less socially acceptable. It happens more often and for longer, probably because people with autism are more likely to experience stressful and overloading situations, have more need to regulate their senses and more internal pressure to release.
The reasons for stimming seem to be more varied in autism, with some unique motivations. It’s often used to make sense of the world and interact with it, for example. This is very true for me – I finger tap in the air to music as if playing an invisible piano, use my hands to copy the rhythmic flow of dust particles through the light, dance my toes inside my shoes to the sound of someone’s name so I remember it. These stims help me translate experiences into forms that are easier for me to process, and to connect to my other senses through my primary sense of touch.
Here’s how I see the difference between autistic stimming and ‘general’ stimming. Many people would enjoy watching a satisfying gif of frosting being poured over a cake*, but far fewer people get an intense visceral release from watching it… or could watch it for three hours straight… or have curated entire Tumblr and Pinterest boards full of similar gifs for when they need to watch them. And, to me, it’s that *need* which is the real defining quality.
It’s incredibly difficult to explain what that feels like to someone who has never felt it before. All I know is that I’ve never heard a neurotypical person talk about stimming with the same joy, intensity, fascination and affection as autistic people do.
*Note about gifs – I’ve linked to the gif instead of embedding it, because this is a sensory friendly space and gifs are overwhelming for some people. But if you enjoy gifs then check out that cake frosting because maaaaaaaaaaan.
4. Is stimming the same as fidgeting?
Again, in my opinion… no it isn’t. While they both involve repetitive actions and provide sensory input, the difference lies in the intensity and extent of those repetitions, and the cause and motivation behind them.
- Fidgeting usually seems to be a result of boredom, nervousness or sensory regulation, whereas stimming has a much wider and complex set of reasons
- Fidgeting is a generalized urge to move around, stimming a specific urge to do a specific movement
- Fidgeting doesn’t seem to happen as much when people are happy
- Stims often require a specific object, movement, duration or speed in order for it to be comforting
- Stimming sometimes involves pain, which fidgeting almost never does
- It’s easier to stop fidgeting, and doing so doesn’t cause the same kind of distress
- Stimming is generally more intense in release, desire and degree of repetitiveness
Basically I think it’s the difference between doodling a few flowers and squares on a page, and doodling an entire page of the @ symbol over and over.
5. Is stimming the same as perseveration?
No, although the two terms are often interchanged. It’s easy to see why, on the surface they look to be very similar but they’re coming from two very different places.
Although they both involve repetition, perseveration is a neurological inability to shift attention or inhibit responses. Giving the same answer to a different set of questions, for example, or continuing to talk on a topic after the conversation has moved on, repeatedly going over old conversations in your mind, or calling the new teacher by the old teacher’s name.
So it’s not just about doing the same thing over and over – it’s continuing to do that thing past the point where it’s reasonable to stop (because the conditions have changed or the behaviour no longer serves a purpose), or being unable to stop. And that’s the key idea about perseveration, the ‘being stuck’ part. There’s a big difference between wanting to do things over and over because it’s calming, and needing to do those things because you’re stuck and can’t move on.
You can read more about perseveration here.
6. Is stimming good or bad?
This is a very common question but I think it’s the wrong way to look at it. Stimming is like eating – a normal, natural, functional biological imperative that under some circumstances can become unhealthy for us. So a better way to talk about stimming is ‘safe and unsafe’ or ‘healthy and unhealthy’.
Or to put it another way, stimming should always be allowed (and encouraged and supported and celebrated) unless it is causing harm to the person or others. In that case it needs to be redirected to a more appropriate or safer stim (and you can read more about how to do that in Self Harm: When Stimming Becomes Dangerous).
7. Is it okay to stop someone from stimming?
It’s really important to understand that suppressing the urge to stim can be incredibly difficult, uncomfortable and even painful to do. It also elevates stress, increases meltdowns and can make behavioural problems a lot worse.
To understand what it feels like, imagine being asked to not smile at something you find really funny. Or to keep your arms by your side when a ball is flying towards your face. Or to sit perfectly still when you have a cramp. Or to stop hearing an ear worm. Really hard, right?
But that being said, not all stims are created equal. Sometimes they can be harmful or problematic to the person or those around them, and of course that is a time to step in and help the person to stop. But that is the only time that you should intervene. Stimming should never be stopped or discouraged just because someone thinks it’s embarrassing or weird.
It’s okay to politely ask someone whose stimming is affecting you to stop or change stims. It’s not okay to physically stop the person from stimming, or ask them to stop because it’s embarrassing you or making them appear autistic. It’s not okay to hold down someone’s hands or arms or shoulder, take their stim object or yell “would you just cut it out already!” And it’s not okay to expect someone to just stop stimming without providing or allowing them an alternative.
What’s next in the stimming series?
- Self harm – when stimming becomes unhealthy or unsafe
- Stimming at work and school – why it’s great for concentration and how to stim when you’re in a shared space
- How to teach kids about stimming
Where can I read more?
There are lots of good posts about stimming, but I highly recommend this excellent and helpful article by Kirsten Lindsmith
Here are some awesome visual stim Tumblrs:
This is a delightful set of drawings called ‘the ABC of stimming’
The Downloads section has a list of 45 classroom-friendly stimming ideas
5 February, 2017 by Bec Oakley