Autistic stimming, or ‘self stimulating’ behaviour — calming, satisfying and recalibrating

Kathy carter
May 16 · 6 min read

We have been asked a few times about ‘stims’, and while we have mentioned them within other articles (see directly below, in an article on autistic meltdown), we thought it would be useful to delve deeper in a single blog post.

Understanding stims

black and white graphic to illustrate black and white thinking styles for autism blog
black and white graphic to illustrate black and white thinking styles for autism blog

Understanding stims is key to understanding how autists process emotions and sensory input. Stims, and the action of stimming, refers to ‘self stimulating’ behaviours; they’re not limited to autists (many of us twirl our hair, or tap our fingers to an imaginary beat, for example); but most autists stim.

Stims may be used for various reasons; for example in times of anxiety; in periods of happiness or contentment; when the body is in need of regulation; and simply because the individual feels good.

Most people, if they have heard of autism stims, think of hand flapping, which is the stereotypical one used most commonly in the media. But perhaps rightly so, as a repetitive hand movement is a very common stim, in times of dis-regulation, sensory overload or anxiety.

Most autistic individuals stim to some degree; they can be very subtle however, and autists who are late-diagnosed may not even realise that their habitual behaviours are stims. For example, clasping or rubbing one’s hands together, or wrapping hair around a finger.

Here are some examples of physical autistic stimming-

Clapping or flapping the hands, or moving them rhythmically.

Finger clicking or snapping, e.g. with the thumb and third finger.

Beating out a rhythm with the hands or fingers (and feet), to a beat in your head.

Flicking or stroking fingernails.

Playing with jewellery, especially if it has movement, e.g. a ring with a spinning section.

Touching something smoothly tactile, like a watch, a clothing label, or piece of jewellery.

Proprioceptive stims e.g. rocking or moving the body — and as well as a ‘big’ movement, this can be the tiniest movement, for example isolating and clenching a small muscle.

Moving the joints somehow, to achieve a ‘click’ or mobilisation — e.g. moving the joint to the edge of its socket.

Vocal stims

Woman listens to music to illustrate autism blog
Woman listens to music to illustrate autism blog

Examples of vocal stims can be humming; singing without recognisable words; and making mouth noises (for example sucking on the teeth or cheeks, or clicking the tongue).

Cognitive autism stims

There are also cognitive autistic stims that autists carry out, that seemingly provide some kind of sense of control, comfort or regularity. These could be a particular numerical sum, or counting in a particular formation. (Many autists use echolalia, and sometimes a favoured phrase or number sequence that sounds appealing may be used as a stim.)

Other stims

There are also other stims, such as: visual stims, e.g. staring at lights or an interesting kinetic picture (like the one at the top of this page), or watching a spinning object; auditory stims, e.g. listening to the same song on a loop; olfactory and oral stims such as sniffing objects or licking and chewing on things; facial tics and features of Tourette syndrome; dermatillomania or picking at the skin (e.g. scabs or hairs), trichotillomania (hair plucking) and also pressure stims — perhaps sitting in a certain way to achieve a sense of pressure.

Self injurious autistic stims

Some individuals may direct a repetitive action on themselves, e.g. hitting their head or face. Stims like this can be detrimental; e.g. in the case of hitting oneself, they are not desirable or helpful in the long term, and can lead to self-harm. In such cases the need to stim may be directed to another object, such as a squeezy toy or boxing punchbag. Using pressure or movement may also be a useful alternative, e.g. pressing the hands against a wall or pressing up from the floor, or bouncing on a Swiss ball. Weighted pressure blankets may also be useful, e.g. to sit or lie under. These ‘tools’ may work to help redress sensory dis-regulation.

Letting off steam

Image to illustrate autism article
Image to illustrate autism article

Although some proponents of behavioural training seemingly seek to reduce stims, and frame them as some kind of antisocial behaviour, in fact there is nothing wrong with autistic stims. Remember that autistic individuals may have problems not only with processing feelings, but also sharing their emotions in the expected way. Stims are very often a way of putting an emotion into a physical representation.

So, the above everyday examples of behavioural stims are perfectly normal and acceptable, especially in children who are finding a place in the world; stims should not be discouraged.

They are simply a way of recalibrating, finding a sense of calm, and satisfying an inbuilt need for repetition. “Autistics are easily overloaded, and simply need to release tension more frequently. When I stim, I often feel like an old fashioned boiler letting off pressure; sometimes in tiny bursts, sometimes in huge belches of steam,” writes Kirsten Lindsmith.

Stims can be valuable communicative information, if an autist finds (in that moment) talking difficult. A stim can indicate rising anxiety, for example. This is valuable information for family members accompanying a young autistic child somewhere, and a potential sign that the environment could be stressful.

In the workplace

Woman- to illustrate that Autistic burnout - Burnout is a physiological symptom of system overload
Woman- to illustrate that Autistic burnout - Burnout is a physiological symptom of system overload

In situations such as the workplace where autistic stims are not necessarily encouraged or accepted, there are ways to make them less noticeable; e.g. there are many fidget toys or gadgets like pens, chewy stim toys and pieces of tactile jewellery that can divert attention.

Many autistic women for example enjoy having smooth, manicured nails that fulfil a nice sensory need, and touching the nails can be very discreet.

(It would be interesting to find out to what extent smoking and vaping is used by autists, to satisfy the need to stim; especially in the workplace.)

What else causes autisim stimming?

Sensory challenges are often cited as big causative factors for stims, as the stimming can create a tactile input (e.g. flicking a muslin or blanket, or a clothes label). The action can help self-soothe and calm the individual, if the stim is linked to anxiety or over / under stimulation from noise, lights, socialisation etc.

It’s proposed that stimming can actually cause the release of beta-endorphins in the body, which then causes a feeling of ‘numbness’ from sensory overload, or plain old pleasure.

The main hypotheses and known causes for stimming are: blocking out excess sensory input (in overstimulation); managing emotions; providing extra sensory input (in understimulation); reducing pain; and self-regulating.

A little disclaimer — here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Disorders / Conditions; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts!


Originally published at Spectra Blog.

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