What’s Up With Stimming?

Let’s talk about “stimming.” When you see an autistic person flapping their hands or rocking back and forth, those actions are considered stimming, which is short for “self-stimulatory behavior.” These are comforting motions that help an autistic person regulate how they’re feeling emotionally and physically. There are hundreds of other ways to stim; some are obvious and some are very subtle.

Neurotypical people stim, too. Do you crack your knuckles, chew on your nails, twirl your hair, hum under your breath, touch your face, shake your leg, or fidget with things? Do you notice that you do these things more when you’re nervous, stressed, or bored? These are also stimming behaviors.

Viktor’s list of stims include tossing their head, sniffing, a low monotone hum, whistling, rocking, hand “flicking,” fidgeting with objects, squeezing squeezable stuff, slapping slappable substances (like a ziplock bag full of royal icing), rolling on the floor, and, rarely, scratching or biting their arms (they only do this when they’re very overwhelmed). They are most likely to stim if they are feeling stressed, bored, hurt, nervous, or if it’s been a long time since they last stimmed. Sometimes, however, they do it when they get very happy or excited.

A nonbinary teen sits on a couch with a phone in their hand. A black and white cat sits near them.
Pretty much the only time they are holding still is when they’re animating on their phone, drawing in their sketchbook, or playing music. Possibly also when they’re sleeping.

Why do they do it?”

It has to do with an autistic person’s very active nervous system. Stimming is a way of releasing some energy and regulating emotions through a repetitive or soothing motion. When an autistic person’s nervous system gets overloaded (which happens quite a lot, since their nervous systems are always on overdrive), stims help to get things back into balance. It literally makes them feel better and helps them cope with daily life.

Do we make them stop it? There are some cases where their stimming behaviors can be self-injurious, such as hitting their head against something or biting and scratching themselves. If this is the case, then of course it’s important to step in. In Viktor’s case, they have only done these kinds of behaviors when they were severely stressed out. It was up to us to not just help them redirect their behavior, but also help them cope with the stressors. But if it’s just out of boredom or excitement, and it’s getting to be a little too much for us, then we will kindly ask that they choose another, quieter stim to use. Normally, though, we just ignore it, or sometimes join in (I love slapping slappable stuff, too).

Why don’t you try to stop them from doing it? Wouldn’t they fit into society better if they didn’t rock or hum?”

I asked Viktor what it feels like when they want to stim but they suppress it (which is usually due to social reasons, like being embarrassed to do it in class or public), and they said that it’s like having an itch but not being allowed to scratch it, walking around with a pebble in your shoe, or watching a mosquito land on your arm and not slapping at it while it bites you. Other autistic people liken being forced to stop stimming to having someone hold their hands on a stove element as it slowly heats up. It starts as scary and uncomfortable, then becomes painful and unbearable.

Two teens in the back of a car. One is sleeping and the other looks annoyed
We do ask that they keep the vocalizations and big movements to a minimum when we’re in the car. Things were going well until their sister fell asleep on them.

There are therapists and programs that are supposed to “train” kids to stop stimming, basically so that they appear more “normal.” Basically, to make the neurotypical people around them feel more comfortable. If you’ve heard of ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis), this is basically a program that does just that: disciplines children for doing anything that isn’t considered socially normal behavior, and rewards them for doing things that make them very uncomfortable, like maintaining eye contact or staying in a room full of people they don’t know. Adult autistics who have lived through these programs report PTSD and other trauma, and don’t believe that any child should be forced to stop harmless stimming behaviors. I believe them, because they know better than any of us what is best for their bodies and brains.

“But what if they do it in public and people think that there’s something ‘wrong’ with them?

Honestly? That’s the other person’s problem. Hopefully they’ll meet and get to know more autistic people and will learn more about how someone else’s benign actions don’t affect them. Thankfully, most of the time, people will just ignore Viktor’s stims – it’s odd for an adult to straight up stare. If they do, and I notice it, I stare back at them until they look away. If they smile, I will soften and smile back. But I don’t put up with adult gawkers. If other kids stare, I make eye contact and smile.

I write these little lectures because you may know an autistic child or adult and they may do some of these behaviors, or some of the myriad that I didn’t list. I hope that learning about them will help you to understand why they do it, and how to react when they do it. Which is not to react at all if they seem otherwise content, or help them if they are doing it out of a reaction to a negative situation.

One response to “What’s Up With Stimming?”

  1. Fellow neurotypicals–if you’ve ever burned your mouth on a bite of pizza and then flapped your hands or jumped up and down or went “Hoo! Hah!” then you’ve stimmed. And for somewhat of the same reason–to deal with an overwhelming stimulus. If you think about how strong a sensation has to be to make you perform that kind of behavior, maybe that’s an insight into what everyday sensations can be like for autistic folks.

    Liked by 2 people

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