Self-stimulatory behavior or “stimming” as most refer to it, is the walking on the tiptoes, the flapping of the hands, or the repeating of words or phrases that we see most of our kids with autism doing. But what exactly is stimming in autism and should you stop this behavior? Let’s find out.
This post may contain affiliate links and I may earn a small commission when you click on the links to purchase something at no additional cost to you.
What is Stimming?
Stimming is a self-regulating behavior that is very common with individuals with autism. This stimming behavior to others look like repetitive movements of one’s body or objects in the form of jumping, rocking, or even rearranging items. A child stims for many reasons; to reduce anxiety, to avoid activities, express frustration or excitement, but mainly to reduce sensory overload. I like to think of stimming as tuning out the noise of the world to find peace within yourself.
What causes Stimming?
The exact reason for what causes stimming is different for every child. Stimming is a way for individuals to cope with life’s changes, and how they respond to those changes at times results in stimming. When a child is overstimulated, they tend to appear moody or easily distracted. Things such as the noise level in the room suddenly become too loud for them. On the flip side, when that same child is understimulated, they tend to crave more touch, they want more eyes watching them, and the noise in the room that was a problem before is no longer an issue because they want it louder now. They simply can not get enough input and when they are feeling out of wack like this, stimming helps them calm themselves down and feel more in control.
Is stimming a sign of Autism?
In short, the answer is yes. Stimming is one of the signs of autism, but it’s not an indicator that someone has autism. I’m sure you catch yourself gazing at nothing in particular deep in thought, humming or tapping your fingers without realizing it immediately. The point is that everyone stims in some form or another. For the most part, there is nothing to be worried about unless it becomes harmful to the child or others. Examples of harmful stimming include: pinching, biting, headbanging, and even hitting other people. If you notice these harmful types of stimming, I suggest you seek out an occupational therapist.
What are the different types of Stimming?
Visual stimming – Visual stimming has to do with your child’s sense of sight. Staring at things such as a ceiling fan or looking at picture books can be very calming to some children and help them relax in certain situations. I even had a student who loved to look at the time change on a microwave. So this will be different for every child.
Tactile stimming – Tactile stimming has to do with your child’s sense of touch. Some examples of this can be that your child constantly picks their skin or scratches themselves.
Auditory stimming – Auditory stimming has to do with your child’s sense of hearing. Examples include listening to a certain sound or song over and over again on repeat.
Olfactory (taste) stimming – Olfactory stimming has to do with your child’s sense of taste. Doing things such as bitting or sucking on things such as their shirt or a pencil. Another example would be putting items in their mouth such as their fingers.
Vestibular stimming – Vestibular stimming has to do with your child’s sense of balance and movement. Examples include a child that likes to jump and spin to try to regulate themselves.
What are some examples of Stimming behavior?
- flapping hands
- playing in their hair- twirling if around their fingers
- organizing and reorganizing items
- walking on tiptoes
- tapping their fingers
- rocking back and forth
Should you stop your child from Stimming?
If the type of stimming that your child is doing is not harming themselves or others, then I would not try to stop them. If you are successful at stopping that particular behavior, your child will only find another type of stimming to calm themselves. Trying to stop the behavior without fully understanding the cause and teaching your child how to self regulate themselves is pointless.
Now there are ways to reduce the behavior such as with exercise and or using other self-calming tactics. These tactics can include creating a sensory room or a space within your child’s room for them to retreat to when needed. Inside that space you can have things such as an adjustable light to keep the room dim, calming music playing and a soft blanket, it doesn’t need to be much to help them relax.
Some sensory toys can be helpful for sensory regulation such as fidgets. You can also try creating items such as a DIY sensory bottle to help calm your child away from home. These sensory bottles were a huge hit with a few of my students and got them through their school day. But before we get ahead of ourselves, the first thing that should be done is to teach your child how to self-regulate themself and manage their emotions through occupational therapy, books, videos, or while playing some of their favorite games.
Treatment for Stimming?
Two possible options for treatment would be the use of medications and occupational therapy. The downside to using medication for treatment is that for one, the use of them is not guaranteed to treat the stimming behaviors, and two, there are side effects to using medications. So, you have to decide if the side effects are worth the risk.
The second option, occupational therapy may be a great choice. By participating in OT, the therapist may be able to reduce or stop the stimming behavior completely. OT can also provide you with helpful information as to what might be causing the stimming behavior and give more personal suggestions on how to regulate the environment and your child’s reaction to it. Therapy will help your child better understand how to cope with their emotions and teach them different ways to calm themselves in different environments.
Erika is a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant working in an elementary school setting. She wanted to create a blog and podcast that shows all sides of school-based learning. Her #1 focus is on providing parents of children with learning disabilities with relevant information in hopes of making each day a little more functional. So if you are interested in more content like this, please sign up below.