Why do autistic people stim

a guide for all audiences

What is stimming? 

“I quickly become overwhelmed [in social situations]. Is it surprising that I then feel like blocking the world out and literally putting my thoughts back in order? That I start to rock to tell myself which feelings are mine? That I start speaking to myself or groaning to block out other sounds and so that I know which thoughts are mine? I think anyone experiencing life this way would do the same.” Autistic adult 

Stimming or self-stimulating behaviour includes arm or hand-flapping, finger-flicking, rocking, jumping, spinning or twirling, head-banging and complex body movements. It includes the repetitive use of an object, such as flicking a rubber band or twirling a piece of string, or repetitive activities involving the senses (such as repeatedly feeling a particular texture).

Why do some autistic people stim? 

Although stimming varies from person to person, the reasons behind it may be the same: 

  • for enjoyment 
  • an attempt to gain sensory input, eg rocking may be a way to stimulate the balance (vestibular) system; hand-flapping may provide visual stimulation 
  • an attempt to reduce sensory input, eg focusing on one particular sound may reduce the impact of a loud, distressing environment; this may particularly be seen in social situations 
  • to deal with stress and anxiety and to block out uncertainty.

Should you intervene?  

Stimming is often very enjoyable and a way to reduce stress and so it shouldn't be stopped or reduced. However, stimming can sometimes be self-injurious, for example, head-banging or scratching.  

Ask yourself if the behaviour restricts the person's opportunities, causes distress or discomfort, or impacts on learning? If it is causing difficulties, or is in some way unsafe, they may need support to stop or modify the behaviour, or reduce their reliance on it. 

Read our strategies if repetitive behaviour causes distress or is unsafe or self-injurious.

More from our charity 

  • Obsessions and repetitive behaviour
  • Self-injurious behaviour
  • Online Community

Stimming: children & teens with autism

About stimming and autism

Stimming – or self-stimulatory behaviour – is repetitive or unusual body movement or noises. Stimming might include:

  • hand and finger mannerisms – for example, finger-flicking and hand-flapping
  • unusual body movements – for example, rocking back and forth while sitting or standing
  • posturing – for example, holding hands or fingers out at an angle or arching the back while sitting
  • visual stimulation – for example, looking at something sideways, watching an object spin or fluttering fingers near the eyes
  • repetitive behaviour – for example, opening and closing doors or flicking switches
  • chewing or mouthing objects
  • listening to the same song or noise over and over.

Many autistic children and teenagers stim, although stimming varies a lot among children. For example, some children just have mild hand mannerisms, whereas others spend a lot of time stimming. Stimming can also vary depending on the situation. For example, some children stim, or stim more, when they’re feeling stressed or anxious.

Why autistic children and teenagers stim

Stimming seems to help autistic children and teenagers manage emotions like anxiety, anger, fear and excitement. For example, stimming might help them to calm down because it focuses their attention on the stim or produces a calming change in their bodies.

Stimming might also help children manage overwhelming sensory information. For autistic children who are oversensitive to sensory information, stimming can reduce sensory overload because it focuses their attention on just one thing. For autistic children who are undersensitive, stimming can stimulate ‘underactive’ senses.

How stimming affects autistic children and teenagers

Stimming isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t hurt your child. But some stimming can be ‘self-injurious’ – for example, severe hand-biting.

Stimming can also affect your child’s attention to the outside world, which in turn can affect your child’s ability to learn and communicate with others.

For example, if a child flicks their fingers near their eyes, they might not be playing with toys so much and not developing play skills. When the child is older, if they’re absorbed in watching their hands in front of their eyes in the classroom, they’re not engaged with schoolwork. Or if the child is pacing around the fence in the playground, they’re missing valuable social opportunities.

We all use stimming sometimes. For example, some children suck their thumbs or twirl their hair for comfort, and others jiggle their legs while they’re working on a difficult problem or task. You might pace up and down if you’re anxious, or fiddle with a pen in a boring meeting.

Helping autistic children and teenagers with stimming

Many autistic people feel they should be allowed to stim because stimming helps them to manage emotions and overwhelming situations. But if stimming is hurting your child or affecting their learning, social life and so on, it might be best for your child to stim less often.

You might be able to reduce your child’s need to stim by changing the environment or helping your child with anxiety. Also, stimming often reduces as your child develops more skills and finds other ways to deal with sensitivity, understimulation or anxiety.

Changing the environment
If your child finds the environment too stimulating, your child might need a quiet place to go, or just one activity or toy to focus on at a time.

If your child needs more stimulation, your child might benefit from music playing in the background, a variety of toys and textures, or extra playtime outside.

Some schools have sensory rooms for autistic children who need extra stimulation. There might be equipment children can bounce on, swing on or spin around on, materials they can squish their hands into, and visually stimulating toys.

Working on anxiety
If you watch when and how much your child is stimming, you might be able to work out whether the stimming is happening because your child is anxious. Then you can look at your child’s anxiety and change the environment to reduce their anxiety.

For example, is there something new or changed in your child’s environment? Preparing your child for new situations and teaching your child new skills to deal with things that cause the anxiety can reduce stimming.

Where to go for help with stimming

Occupational therapists can help you look at environmental adjustments to support your child.

If your child’s behaviour is causing your child harm or hurting other people, speak to your child’s GP, paediatrician, psychologist, another health professional working with your child, or school support staff.

There are therapies and supports that can help with stimming if that’s what your child needs. These therapies and supports are listed in our Parent Guide to Therapies. Each guide gives an overview of the therapy, what research says about it, and the approximate time and costs involved in using it.

Repetitive behavior ("stimming") from the point of view of an adult with autism


A woman on the autism spectrum about her personal experience of "stimming" (stereotypes, repetitive behavior), its pros, cons and possible approaches

Author: Holli Clauser / Holli Clauser
Source: The Mighty

completely wrapped in it. It was a knitted blanket with green, yellow and white squares. I ran under it from the skirmish of my brothers and sisters, from the barking of dogs, from the screams of my parents. And I disconnected from the outside world, counting the squares and rubbing them with my fingers. This calmed me down. It was my soft, familiar, and Tide-smelling place. Now I am 42 years old. This "nanny" usually lies in the corner of my bedroom, but she can no longer protect me. nine0003

I had "fidgets" and "spinners" before it became fashionable

"Why are you spinning all the time" - I heard this statement throughout my childhood. I often needed to distract myself and focus on something else to deal with negative emotions. It helped me calm my anxiety in social situations, kept me occupied if others were too emotional, and helped me focus on the task when I was doing my homework.

As an adult, I learned that these repetitive movements were my defense mechanism. They helped me distance myself from a reality that was too difficult or complex. Then I became a tutor in an offline class for children with autism, where I worked with an autistic girl one on one, and only there I realized that "stimming" is not "fidgeting", and what I was doing was stimming. nine0003

Key feature of autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

“Stimming” is a slang term for “self-stimulating behavior”. In most cases, this behavior is a symptom of autism. And very often this is the first or only sign of autism that strangers notice. At its core, stimming is a way of self-regulation of one's condition.

Examples of stimming

- Any repetitive "pointless" movement: walking back and forth, circling in place, rocking the torso, twisting objects in the arms, jumping, and so on. nine0003

- Immersion in repetitive thoughts or fantasies.

- Repetitive movements of the eyebrows, blinking.

- Shaking hands, moving fingers in front of eyes.

- Line up toys, unwind toys.

- Repetitive fingering of one's hair.

- Repeated repetition of certain sounds, words or previously heard phrases.

- Complete and prolonged concentration on a single interest or topic.

- Unusual or inappropriate sniffing of objects.

- Repeated pressing of palms to ears.

Perhaps by the end of the list you are thinking, “Do I have autism? Because I do some of it." I do not know the answer to this question, and, in any case, I am not qualified to make diagnoses. But wait with self-diagnosis - repetitive movements are very common among all people. We all know those who twirl their hair around their fingers, chew on pen caps, and tap their feet when they think. The difference between people with autism is not in the very presence of such movements, but in their volume, frequency and need for such behavior. Below I will explain this in more detail using the example of my own stimming. nine0003

No, not "we're all a little autistic"

One of the most annoying reactions when people hear that I have autism is, "Well, we're all a bit on the autism spectrum. " In my experience, two categories of people answer this way - autism-ignorant people and undiagnosed autistic people.

Some people still deny that I've been correctly diagnosed with autism, but I think these people just don't know what autism is, and they don't know me very well.

What is stimming for me

I constantly put my fingers in my ears and move them until they bleed. I noticed that I do it from overload, nervousness and strong thoughtfulness. As a rule, I let my hair down because it partially blocks access to the ears. Or loved ones remind me to stop.

To some extent, yes, I can control my stimming. But it's like trying not to scratch a mosquito bite - it's about as hard for me to suppress the urge to stim. The moment I do this, it feels great, but I may regret it later when I can't put my ear on the pillow. nine0003

Can this be fixed?

I was more or less able to replace stimming in public with alternative behavior. During meetings, I keep my hands under the table, which allows me to rub my fingers together or fiddle with a piece of cloth in my hands. If I'm worried or bored, I use scrolling on my phone as a repetitive motion. It looks like I'm looking for something or looking, but really I'm just scrolling. From time to time when I do this, I say some random word, I repeat it for a while, and then I keep scrolling. Saying words like sketchy, loyalty, and commitment out loud gives me more pleasure than you might think. nine0003

Do I benefit from stimming?

Stimming has helped me many times. For example, my "stuck" on topics related to my interests, which also applies to repetitive behavior. It has been very helpful at work. If a work task attracts me, then I develop a fixation on it. For example, if I'm in HR, I'll read every HR article I can, listen to podcasts, read other people's resumes online, until I exceed my management's expectations. nine0003

However, I can do all this through sleep, family, self-care, and housework. In a way, this can make me a good employee, but I need something else to motivate me, because if my thirst for knowledge is satiated, I will lose motivation. I am currently working on the skills to manage my own behavior. And I've noticed that when I'm less "obsessed" with a topic, I become more creative.

In summary: Yes, stimming can be beneficial. But it is important to learn to control it. nine0003

Worry or not

In my opinion, stimming does not necessarily need to be corrected.

Intervention is needed if:

- Stimming prevents a person from functioning in society (going to school, working, attending social events, socializing with friends, etc.).

- Causes physical harm (my poor bloody ears) or harms other people.

- Interferes with sleep, eating or daily hygiene. nine0003

Do NOT intervene and interrupt stimming because:

– These movements confuse other people.

- These movements irritate other people.

- Others may think that this is not "normal".

If you need help

If you think you or your child needs help with stimming, see a trained professional. First of all, these are certified behavioral analysts with experience in working with self-stimulating behavior in autism. nine0003

Warning: Not all behavioral analysts are the same

In every profession, there are people who are not right for you, and there are those whose qualifications match your needs. Research detailed information, ask about other people's experiences with this or that specialist, before deciding to start therapy. Ultimately, you will need to make up your mind and, of course, be prepared to work hard.

See also:

Why children with autism use stimming

Is it necessary to deal with self-stimulation in a child with autism?

We hope that the information on our website will be useful or interesting for you. You can support people with autism in Russia and contribute to the work of the Foundation by clicking on the "Help" button.

POV, Sensory and Motor

What is “self-stimulation” in autism and why is it important?


Definition of self-stimulating behavior and recommendations from an adult with Asperger's syndrome 9


Special-ism Photo: chesterleyschild. blogspot.ru

Does your child often sway, jerk his knee, grunt under his breath, squint his eyes or sniff various objects? The purpose of this behavior is sensory stimulation or "self-stimulation" ("stimming"), and it is not just the norm - for a child with an autism spectrum disorder, such movements are necessary and vital. nine0003

Feedback to our senses

Self-stimulation provides feedback to our senses. There are five well-known senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. There are also several additional senses, including the sense of balance (vestibular system), interoception (perception of sensations in the internal organs), proprioception (joint-muscular sense, a sense of the position of one's own body and its parts). In addition, the brain has its own mental sensors, which, apparently, are able to participate in their own stimulation. nine0003

You will notice that self-stimulating behaviors appeal to one or more senses, for example, mooing sends both auditory and tactile (tactile) signals.

Sensory overload

People with autism spectrum disorders often suffer from sensory overload. It is important that "sensory" in this case refers not only to the five basic senses. For example, bad news or a sudden change of plans may not seem "sensory" to you, but for a person on the autism spectrum, it is an internal mental overload, and it causes a lot of stress. nine0003

Self-stimulation as a way to relieve stress

Self-stimulation provides feedback that can distract or cheer the person with autism. For example, through rocking, a person with autism can direct their mental, proprioceptive, tactile, and vestibular senses to another task, and this will distract them from thinking about what is bothering them. This is why you will see an increase in a child's self-stimulating behavior during times of stress.

Self-stimulation as a way to enjoy

Of course, in most cases, self-stimulation occurs naturally, and a person does not consciously try to use them to reduce stress. The child may do this simply because the self-stimulation is pleasurable. Children may begin self-stimulating activities completely unconsciously, without even noticing that they are "stimulating".

This behavior can sometimes annoy parents as it draws unnecessary attention to your child and can lead to bullying, it can even be harmful. One of my son's worst self-stimulation methods is shirt chewing. This behavior has stopped recently - he is twelve years old. Imagine our disappointment when it turned out that every shirt of his was chewed up and his little brother could no longer wear them. nine0003

How to Reduce Self-Stimulation

— Unfortunately, there isn't much that can be done to reduce self-stimulation, although teaching a child to be aware of what their self-stimulating behavior looks like is a good first step.

- Whenever possible, you can encourage your child to use less visible ways of self-stimulation, but be careful. I know parents who just wanted their child to stop biting their nails, but as a result of their efforts, a new “stim” appeared, even more noticeable and dangerous.

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