One of the clinical indicators of autism is stereotypic and repetitive behaviours (AKA: stims or stimming). Stimming in autism is movements or other behaviours that are either calming or alerting. Most of the time it is not a problem and does not need to be stopped or changed.
Each person has specific behaviours or habits (stims) that they find comforting or alerting. When you’re nervous maybe you twirl your hair or rub your hands together. Maybe you bounce 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. Common autistic stims are rocking back and forth, flapping hands, toe walking or spinning in circles.
When and why do autistic people stim?
Autistic people stim at the same times that other people do. Some autistic self-advocates explain that stimming helps them block out distractions to help them concentrate, while others say “it just feels really good”. Neurotypical people will sometimes avoid stimming in specific situations (for example, not fidget and bounce around while at the dentist, despite being nervous). It can difficult for autistics to stop stimming, especially when upset or nervous.
Some autistics say that stimming helps them regulate their emotions or to generate awareness 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 have shared that being told to stop stimming is very damaging. Stimming can be 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.
There are times however, when stimming can be dangerous or disruptive to the autistic’s quality of life. For example, some people will injure themselves or others while stimming. If a stim is interrupting the autistic from engaging in activities that they need to do (like sit in a chair to learn) then alternative stims should be found. A BCBA would work with the family to identify the function of the stimming behaviour and would find replacements. An OT might suggest a sensory diet, if the stimming serves a sensory function.