Stimming is a form of self-soothing often associated with autism, but it’s common among nonautistic individuals as well.
Self-soothing is a natural and necessary part of the human experience. Stimming, or self-stimulatory behavior, is an example of just that.
Stimming may be used to self-soothe and communicate and may include body movement, noises, or both.
A 2017 research review describes stimming as a stereotypic behavior associated with autistic individuals.
While stimming is most associated with autistic folks, not all autistic people stim. This self-soothing behavior may also occur in anyone — whether they’re neurodivergent or neurotypical.
A note on neurodivergent people
There is no cure for autism, and many people in the autistic community don’t feel the need for one. Instead, they recognize autism as a neurotype rather than a disability or condition that needs to be cured.
Neurodivergent folks, including autistic people, may communicate in diverse ways. For instance, avoiding eye contact and fidgeting may help them concentrate better or feel more comfortable in conversation and doesn’t always mean disinterest.
Neurodivergent individuals may also respond to sensory stimuli differently than neurotypical people. These responses may include stimming, which is usually out of the autistic person’s control.
Nonautistic individuals might engage in stimming to relieve anxiety or preoccupy themselves. Yet neurotypical folks tend to be more aware of their stimming and engage in it less frequently. Examples of neurotypical stimming may include:
- clicking your pen during a long lecture
- biting your nails
- jiggling your leg when you’re anxious
Autistic folks, on the other hand, use stimming to cope with the world around them. Self-soothing through stimming may work to minimize larger responses, such as autism meltdowns.
Research from 2013 describes rocking as a common form of stimming among autistic people. Other examples of neurodivergent stimming may include:
- humming, singing, or listening to a song on repeat
- hand-waving or flapping
- jumping or spinning
- touching objects or textures
- repeating words, sounds, or body movements
- chewing on things
Many autistic individuals experience sensory processing dysfunction and may use stimming to work through emotions or communicate their feelings.
“As stimming is often an extension of who we are, we are almost always stimming in one way or another,” says Sonny Jane, a lived-experience educator and consultant on Kaurna Land in Australia.
“We might stim more often during moments when we need extra regulation from our emotions or sensory input, but we might also stim when we’re trying to focus or pay attention.”
The need or desire to stim may be caused by a trigger or overwhelming situation. Common sensory-related triggers may include:
- loud noises
- harsh heat or cold
- troublesome lighting
Stimming may also occur during stressful situations or when difficult emotions arise.
“If stimming is suddenly triggered, it might be due to sensory overload, or we might be trying to prevent a meltdown,” Jane says.
Jane says stimming isn’t always used as a coping mechanism in difficult situations.
For some autistic individuals, stimming may occur to communicate joy or excitement.
“If I’m excited, stimming feels like an extension of my joy. It’s a natural behavior that feels like a part of me,” Jane says. According to Jane, some of the benefits of stimming may include:
- soothing the sensory processing system
- releasing built-up energy and emotions
- helping with focus
- providing important sensory input
- avoiding a meltdown or shutdown
Though stimming may have its positives, this behavior may become an issue if it:
- is disruptive to others
- leads to physical injury (i.e., head-banging, slapping)
- interferes with the individual’s livelihood
“Stimming can occasionally cause harm to one’s self, and it’s only when this is happening that we should do something about it,” says Jane. “The goal should never be to stop someone from stimming but to redirect them to a less harmful stim.”
Sometimes autistic folks may rock or make loud noises, which may feel disruptive to certain group settings.
According to research from 2019, neurotypical individuals who do not understand the experience of what it’s like to live with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may unfairly exclude or judge autistic folks who stim.
Stimming can be a helpful self-soothing mechanism and isn’t anything to be ashamed of.
If you or a loved one tend to stim in a way that may cause harm, there are options for support and redirection of the behavior.
When it comes to therapeutic techniques for ASD, there’s varying opinions on the efficacy of some popular options. Occupational therapy has been shown to be an effective intervention, as well as parent-child interactive therapy (PCIT) and floortime.
Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) is another modality that’s widely used and is also highly controversial. The goal of these therapies is to work with the stim, modify the behavior, or reduce the need to do so.
Some within the autistic community are against the therapy because of research that links ABA to PTSD in autistic adults. Also, ABA has historically centered around compliance and changing behavior. Many autistic people instead prefer other therapeutic options.
For instance, some practitioners may also suggest an anti-anxiety medication to help manage symptoms.
Keeping track of any trends around your stims and what context they occur in can help you become more aware of your sensory and emotional triggers.
You may wish to consider whether you’re able to make changes to what makes you uncomfortable in specific situations.
If it’s a classroom or workplace, you might make an accommodation request to ensure you or your loved one have the safe environment you need to help you succeed.
Stimming is a common form of communication and self-soothing. Many individuals may engage in stimming, but it’s most common among autistic people.
While stimming can sometimes make people uncomfortable, unless someone is in danger of hurting themselves or other people, no one should have to feel like they should stop their stims.
“Our nervous system is hardwired a little differently, which is why we have more sensory sensitivities and why we need to stim to regulate more,” Jane says.
Many autistic folks have found ways to navigate the broad range of feelings and emotions that can come up in their everyday lives. If you’re looking for resources on redirecting your stims, support is available.