Autistic stimming is repetitive behaviors used as a way to self-soothe when experiencing overstimulation, under stimulation, pain, and extreme emotions. It can be beneficial when there is awareness of your stimming behaviors and how they help you soothe. On the contrary, some risks associated with stimming can be a lack of concentration/focus, difficulty with interpersonal relationships, difficulty engaging in social situations, and self-harm based behaviors.
What Is Stimming?
Stimming is a type of self-stimulation that is most often associated with Autism; however, it can also be seen in other disorders. According to the DSM 5, stimming can look like repetitive behaviors (motor movements and/or speech) that can impact an individual’s level of functioning at home, work, school, relationships, and/or occupation.1
“Because the majority of people fall within the group we define as neurotypical, we tend to categorize neurodiverse populations as “other”. However, it should be noted that many neurotypical people also participate in stimming-type behaviors in some settings. This may provide relief or comfort to them or may just be a habit, but either way, this is common among all people.” – Dr. Christopher Hanks 5
To a degree, everyone engages in stimming. However, the difference between that and autistic stimming is the degree of impact on the individual’s level of functioning. That being said, stimming can be beneficial for self-soothing or expressing happiness. When it becomes disruptive is when it causes harm to someone, causes medical issues, and/or impacts their ability to interact with the world.
Common examples of stimming behaviors include:
- Hand flapping
- Finger flicking
- Biting nails
- Twirling hair
- Hard and/or frequent blinking
- Tapping/spinning objects
Autism & Stimming
Stimming may be different for autistic folks due to the level of sensory processing needs they may have. Some typical stimming behaviors that are potentially more evident or obvious for individuals with autism are full-body movements, rocking back and forth, echolalia, headbanging, clapping, etc. Stimming differs for individuals with autism from neurotypical individuals due to the increased need for emotion and sensory regulation.
Common reasons for autistic stimming include:
- Overstimulation: stimming can help with sensory overload by distracting or blocking out the increased sensory input the individual is experiencing
- Understimulation: stimming can help with under stimulation by increasing the level of stimulation the individual is experiencing (i.e., humming)
- Pain management: stimming can be used as pain management due to it being a way to distract the individual from the pain they are experiencing
- Emotional regulation: stimming can help with emotional regulation by engaging in a behavior that physically expresses the emotion we are experiencing (i.e., hand flapping for excitement.)2
- Adapting to an unfamiliar environment: stimming can help with coping when adjusting to an unfamiliar environment that is causing overwhelming emotions
- Attention seeking: stimming can be used to seek attention when it is difficult to receive someone’s undivided attention
- Avoidance: stimming can be used as a way to avoid engagement in unwanted or undesired activities
Benefits of Autistic Stimming
The benefits of autistic stimming can be associated with a reduction in over or under-stimulation, regulating emotions, and reducing pain. Engaging in these positive coping strategies can reduce the destructive and potentially harmful reactions that can appear when we are unable to self-regulate.
Below are the potential benefits of autistic stimming:3
Emotional regulation is important to be able to cope with strong emotions that occur in our day-to-day lives. Stimming can allow an individual with autism to release these emotions that otherwise would be stuck with nowhere to go.
Improved Mental Health
Stimming can help improve mental health due to understanding the impact of these positive skills on our particular emotions. For example, if sensory overwhelm increases anxiety and reactivity, which ultimately ends with a sense of depression due to our reactions, stimming as a way to self-soothe can reduce anxiety, reactivity, and inevitable depression. Stimming can offer a person an effective form of stress management.
Stimming can act as a form of self-expression, especially in the context of echolalia. By engaging in stimming, we can give an idea of what we are experiencing, what helps us, what our needs are, and what we enjoy.
Stimming can act as a form of harm reduction for self-harming behaviors. Engaging in a stim behavior that improves our overall mental health, expression, and overstimulation, the need to engage in harming behaviors to relieve anger and frustration will ultimately reduce.
Possible Risks of Autistic Stimming
Possible risks of autistic stimming come from the impact on the person’s overall functioning. This can include impacts on relationships, learning, work, and self-care. The difference between managing stimming behaviors and controlling them comes down to the awareness of the trigger and the purpose of the behavior. If the stimming behaviors are causing more harm than good, it is important to find ways to replace that behavior with another instead of controlling it completely.
Management for autistic stimming may be needed if:
- It has become disruptive at school or work
- It causes physical harm to oneself or others
- It impacts your close relationships
- Your mental health worsens as a result of the behavior
- It causes medical issues
It is also common for individuals with ADHD to engage in stimming behaviors. Both ADHD stimming and autistic stimming may be used to meet sensory needs and regulate emotions. A lot of stimming behaviors can look similar between the two diagnoses.
How to Manage Autistic Stimming When Needed
To work on managing harmful stims, it is important to understand your triggers for engaging in them in the first place. Managing stimming is a difficult but beneficial practice for those with autism and ADHD. The best method of reduction is to avoid certain triggers. For instance, if you are triggered by bright lights, replace any bright lights within your home with lower-intensity lights.
Here are some tips for managing unhealthy autistic stimming:
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
ABA can help when managing autistic stimming.4 ABA therapy practice focuses on managing behaviors based on our environments. This can be helpful in exposure to the triggering event or situation in addition to ways to cope with this trigger.
Don’t Punish the Behavior
Punishing stimming behavior will not eliminate the behavior. If anything, it can cause the behavior to be replaced with a more severe or harmful behavior. It is important to understand it is a process, and sometimes we have setbacks. It is okay to engage in the behavior if it is the only skill you have while you work on replacing it with a more beneficial behavior.
Stress Management Tools
Utilizing stress management tools can reduce your overall reactivity baseline. This can help reduce stimming behaviors as the need for regulation will decrease. Some healthy coping mechanisms include fidgeting toys, dedicated quiet space, light exercise, or meditation.
Occupational therapists sometimes use the approach of a “sensory diet,” which involves scheduling activities throughout the day to meet the individual’s sensory needs as opposed to spontaneous engagement in stimming behaviors.
Changing the environment to improve your sensory overload and/or emotional regulation can reduce stimming behaviors. Some options for changing the environment can include: changing lights in the home, reducing noise levels, traveling with ear plugs for noise reduction, wearing sunglasses, planning around food needs, and traveling with a sensory bin.
“For any apparent stimming behavior that may cause harm to the individual participating in it,” says Dr. Hanks, “seeking to work with the individual to identify if there are any underlying causes (physical or mental health concerns) and address them is appropriate. If such health concerns are not found, working with the individual to see if alternate stimming practices may provide what the person needs without causing harm would be a reasonable approach.”
Establish a Routine
Creating a predictable daily routine for tasks can help with the overwhelm of tasks. Making sure the routine is predictable but also can be flexible when life gets in the way is important. An example of a daily routine is sticking to tasks you want to accomplish each day instead of setting times of the day they need to be done.
In seeking medication management, psychiatrists or nurse practitioners may prescribe medications like Risperdal or Abilify to help with the irritability and/or aggressiveness that can come from overstimulation.
When to Seek Professional Help
When struggling with stimming behaviors, it can help to seek support. Professionals that can help are psychiatrists, therapists, or occupational therapists. If you’re interested in therapy, try finding a neurodiversity-affirming therapist by requesting a referral from your doctor, family, or friends or checking an online therapist directory. Obtaining an accurate diagnosis can help you get your needs met.
“Depending on the manifestation of stimming in an individual,” adds Dr. Hanks, “it may be disruptive in some settings, but we also need to be cautious about stigmatizing an activity that does not cause harm (and may provide benefit) to the individual doing it. One of the most important therapeutic things we all could do is accept that for some people, stimming behaviors are beneficial and allow them to do so without judgement.”
While stimming can be disruptive in an individual’s life, it can also be a great skill to develop for emotion regulation. If you are in a place where your stimming is impacting your life in a negative way, it is a good idea to seek professional help to manage it a little better.