What is Stimming in Autism?

Stimming in Autism 

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how a person interacts with others, communicates, and experiences the world. One of the unique behaviours noticed with autism, is “stimming”. Stimming is when someone with autism displays repetitive movements or sounds. These movements or sounds help them to regulate their sensory experiences and emotions. 

Examples of stimming:

Hand flapping: Flapping their hands back and forth.
Rocking: Swaying back and forth while sitting or standing.
Repetitive tapping: Tapping fingers or objects repeatedly.
Finger flicking: Repeatedly moving fingers quickly.
Making vocal sounds: Repeating certain words, phrases, humming or sounds.
Spinning objects: Twirling or spinning items or even spinning in a circle themselves.
Repetitive walking: Pacing back and forth or walking in a small route over and over (an area in a classroom for example) in a particular area.

These are a few examples of stimming and are the more common types of typical stimming. However, no two people with autism are the same, so stimming can look and sound different to different people.

Why Do People with Autism Stim?

Stimming helps people with autism in many different ways, here are some examples of how it can help.

Sensory regulation: People with autism can have heightened or diminished sensory sensitivities. Stimming can help them manage sensory overload or look for sensory stimulation. For example, rocking back and forth, may be a way to self-soothe when over-stimulated by lights.

Emotional regulation: Stimming can be used as a way to manage their mental health, such as managing their emotions, anxiety or as coping methods. As well as helping with emotions and their mental health, it can also be used as a way to regulate good feelings, like excitement or joy.

Communication: Stimming can be a way for people with autism to convey how they are feeling. Hand flapping or rocking back and forth may show signs that they are feeling overstimulated or anxious. They could be using these movements to singal to you how they are feeling.

Enjoyment: Stimming can be pleasurable or enjoyable for some individuals with autism and provide them a sense of comfort or satisfaction. It can be a way of them showing you that they are enjoying an activity.

Self-expression: Stimming is also a way for someone with autism to express themselves. Just as someone might smile when they’re happy or cry when they’re sad, stimming behaviours can be a form of self-expression.

Is Stimming Harmful?

Stimming itself is not harmful, but could cause safety concerns, injury and mentally impact someone with autism due to social stigma. Here are a few examples.

Social stigma: Sometimes stimming is noticeable and there are times where members of the public may not understand or misinterpret stimming, which can result in starting, isolation or bullying.

Safety concerns: In some environments, there could be a risk when someone is stimming.  For example, if someone is spinning near a ledge (a curb or at the train station) , this could lead to an accident.

Injury: Some stimming can result in self-injury, like hitting into objects or hitting themselves. 

It’s important to approach stimming with sensitivity, empathy and understanding. Rather than trying to stop people with autism from stimming, it is often more helpful to find ways to support individuals with autism in managing their stimming safely.

Supporting Individuals Who Stim

If you know someone with autism who stims, here are some ways you can provide support:

Acceptance: Recognise that stimming is a natural and important part of how they regulate themselves in the neurotypical world. Show acceptance, support and understanding rather than judgement.

Communication: Asking questions with care about why they might be stimming in a situation, you may be able to find ways to help or support them. You may need to and they may need to use images or pictures as not all people with autism respond verbally.

Sensory accommodations: Create sensory-friendly environments that help with their sensory sensitivities, which could help reduce them from using stimming as a coping mechanism.

Alternative outlets: There may be other ways that could help regulate their sensory experiences or emotions, such as using stress balls, fidget toys, or designated “quiet spaces.”

Social support: Encourage social interactions and friendships to reduce isolation.

In conclusion, stimming in autism is common and helps with sensory regulation, emotional management, communication, and self-expression. It is not harmful in itself but could cause injury or safety concerns at times as stated above. Please approach stimming with empathy, understanding and support, so that the person with autism can navigate the neurotypical world with as much ease and comfort as possible. Don’t be afraid to ask ways to help someone when seeing them distressed (you may need to use images or they may use images to communicate).