One of the clinical indicators of autism is repeating the same actions over and over again (AKA: stims or stimming). Stimming in autism is movements or other behaviours that are either calming or alerting. Most of the time stimming is not a problem and does not need to be stopped or changed unless it is causing harm.
Each person has specific behaviours or habits (stims) that they find comforting or alerting. Most of the time, we aren’t aware when we are stimming. When you’re nervous, maybe you are twirling your hair or rubbing your hands together. Maybe you are bouncing your leg to wake up when you’re tired. When you’re concentrating, maybe you stick your tongue out of your mouth. Autistic people also do these same things, sometimes in a more obvious way. There are many common stims that you may see a person with autism repeat frequently. Let’s talk about the different types of stims.
What are Some Examples of Stimming?
There are several different types of stimming that you may notice someone do. These different types of stims can include all of the senses, such as taste, smell, touch, sight, balance, and movement. You can refer to them as auditory stimming, tactile stimming, vestibular stimming, visual stimming, and olfactory or taste stimming.
Auditory stimming means the person is using their hearing and sounds to stim, such as humming or making high-pitched sounds.
If a person is using their sense of touch to stim, such as tapping their fingers repeatedly or rubbing their skin, it is tactile stimming.
Hand flapping, lining up objects, turning the lights on and off a lot are all examples of visual stimming. This is when the person uses their sight to repeatedly do something.
Vestibular stimming, such as toe walking, spinning in circles, hand flapping, and rocking back and forth, is when a person is using their balance and movement to stim.
The last type of stimming behaviour is olfactory and taste stimming. This type of stimming is when the person is using their taste and smell to repeat actions, such as licking or sniffing objects and/or people.
When and why do autistic people stim?
Autistic people stim at the same times that other people do. The intensity of these stims and types of stims vary. You may find that one autistic child is doing it all the time, while another only stims occasionally. Some autistic self-advocates explain that it helps them block out distractions to help them concentrate, while others say “it just feels really good”. People who don’t have autism may avoid stimming in specific situations. For example, despite being nervous, the person is not bouncing around or fidgeting while at the dentist. It is difficult for autistics to stop
stimming, especially when upset or nervous.
Some autistics say that stimming helps them control their emotions, such as fear, excitement, and stress. Stimming also helps make them more aware of their bodies. Another really interesting function of stims is to communicate emotions or arousal to others in a non-verbal way.
In the show Love on the Spectrum, one of the show’s cast, Olivia, says stimming is “…a massive build-up, with a pleasant release” (Episode 4).
What should be done about autistic stimming?
Many autistic self-advocates share that being told to stop stimming is very damaging. Stimming is intrinsic to the autistic and to expect them to change part of themselves because it makes us more comfortable is just wrong.
No one is telling a neurotypical kid to stop playing with their hair or to stop drumming their fingers on their leg. The same rules should apply for autistics.
Stimming is usually harmless. There are times however when stimming is dangerous or disruptive to the autistic person’s quality of life. For example, some people injure themselves or others while stimming. This can sometimes be seen in the form of headbanging or excessively rubbing or scratching skin. Also, if a stim is interrupting them from engaging in activities that they need to do (like sitting in a chair to learn) then alternative stims should be found. A BCBA works with the family to identify the function of the stimming behaviour and finds replacements. An Occupational Therapist might suggest a sensory diet if the stimming serves a sensory function.