autistic girl stimming fidget spinner
How can I help my child?

What is stimming?

There are often times when we’re feeling anxious, angry, nervous, uncertain or bored. When any of these feelings begin to surface, what do we do? For many autistic adults and children, myself included, we have a little something to resort to. Something called ‘stimming’, which is short for self-stimulatory behaviour.

Many autism experts, activists and professionals talk about it, but what exactly is stimming and why do many autistic people do it? Put simply, it’s something we do to calm ourselves down by doing something with our bodies in a repetitive way until we’re feeling a little better.

Not all autistic people stim. However, many of those who do believe that it helps them to cope when they’re at their most stressed. There are a handful of autism professionals out there who believe that stimming should be discouraged, but as I’m about to discuss, stimming is a wonderful thing that can be useful at the right times.

The different types of stimming

Stimming comes in many different forms. Below, I’ve picked a few common examples:

  • Clicking the fingers repeatedly
  • Playing with a small toy, such as a tangle toy or fidget toy (like the one pictured)
  • Clicking a pen or pencil
  • Twiddling hair
  • Playing with a rubber band
  • Rocking back and forth
  • Humming repeatedly
  • Making noises
  • Saying the same thing over again (echolalia)

Among the ways in which I tend to stim are twiddling my (long) beard with my fingers, rocking back and forth while sat down and play with either a stress ball or tangle toy. Someone’s choice of stimming method is purely down to what they feel comfortable with doing and if it helps to get the senses going in the right way.

The way in which an autistic person stims also depends on environment and mood. If someone’s anxious without being angry, they may choose to fidget, whereas if someone’s angry, they might like to stim by bending or pushing something like, say, a bendy figurine.

How does it work?

Stimming is basically where someone does something in a repetitive way with their body or mind in order to feel something and release sensory energy. If someone is stimming with their hands, they’re usually doing so to relieve any tension built up due to anger, stress, anxiety or, in some cases, boredom.

For non-physical forms of stimming, the principle is the same. Do something repetitively until you feel better. However, this involves doing something more mental, such as humming or making noises. Whatever it takes to put yourself in a better frame of mind, it’s worth doing.

You can also stim with your entire body. The most common way of doing this is rocking back and forth while sat down. Going around in circles on a swivel chair or waving your arms and hands in unison are other ways of stimming with your body, but you need enough room in order to do either!

When do we stim?

Stimming tends to be at its most useful when an autistic person is in one of the following moods:

  • anxious
  • angry
  • stressed
  • bored
  • impatient

When things become a bit too much for whatever reason, that’s when many autistic people usually start stimming. A lot of it can start when sensory overload becomes too difficult to manage. If, say, background noise becomes more pronounced, the lighting in a room is too bright or there’s just so much going on, that’s usually the cue to stim away.

To autistic people, stimming is a normal, natural, harmless act that helps to calm the senses and release all of that energy which would otherwise go to waste. At any time of the day when at our most pent-up, it’s the best possible coping mechanism.

Stimming can be done in just about any setting too. At work, in class, at home, on the move – if we have the room needed or the right stim toy with us, we can do it.

How others see it

While many autistic people and those closest to them see stimming as perfectly fine, there are a few voices out there who believe that it can be damaging. There are some extreme forms of stimming where someone might bang part of their body against a hard surface (usually a floor or wall) – injuries could occur to small children if there’s no intervention.

Some parents who see their kids stimming may feel that it reflects badly on them if it happens. Also, if their child is at school and they’re stimming within eyeshot of their classmates, it could encourage bullying. For parents who are worried about this, it might be worth talking to a teacher or head of year at their child’s school to explain stimming.

A minority of stimming types can be damaging, but in the main, stimming is completely harmless. It’s a fantastic coping mechanism that almost always works, all the way from childhood to adulthood.

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