What is stimming?
The term ‘stim’ is an abbreviation of self-stimulatory. It refers to the repetition of body movements, words, sounds, or movement of objects. Stimming, also called stereotypic behaviour is one of the most obvious characteristics of developmental disabilities, and is one of the diagnostic criteria for autism.
Neurotypical individuals too can engage in stimming. Biting nails, twirling hair, drumming fingers on a table or jiggling legs are subtler forms of stimming seen in most people. The main differences between typical stimming and stimming in people with autism lie in the quantity, type and the obviousness of the stereotypic behaviours.
Behaviours can also be labelled as stimming based on whether they are socially or culturally acceptable. Fidgeting with an object while you are anxious or bored can be considered a more tolerable behaviour than flapping hands or rocking the whole body back and forth. Moreover, people with autism may not be adept at picking up social cues and gauging whether their behaviours are being disruptive. For instance, a neurotypical individual can stop tapping their foot if they notice the negative attention it draws. Those on the spectrum may not only be unaware but also may have less control over their stimming.
What Causes Stimming?
The exact causes of stimming are still unknown. There are a variety of emotions that can trigger stimming. Children with autism can stim when they are excited or happy. Boredom, fear, stress and anxiety can also trigger stimming. The intensity and type of stimming can vary from individual to individual. For some, the behaviours may be mild and occasional, while others may engage in stimming more frequently.
Some experts are of the opinion that stimming can be a way to stimulate the sensory system when there is a lack of adequate sensory input. Others suggest that people with autism may use stimming as a diversionary tactic for relaxation when they are overwhelmed.
Types of Stimming Behaviours
Stimming can involve all the senses including visual, auditory, balance and movement, touch, smell and taste. Here are some of the common types of stimming:
Staring at lights.
Shaking fingers in front of the eyes.
Staring at spinning objects.
Gazing at objects such as screen savers ceiling fans.
Turning lights on and off.
Peering from the corners of the eyes.
Flipping through books.
Listening to the same songs or noises.
Making vocal sounds such as tapping ears, snapping fingers, humming, grunting, or squealing.
Tapping on objects.
Covering and uncovering ears.
Rubbing or scratching the skin with hands or with another object.
Repetitive hand movements such as opening and closing one’s fists.
Rocking front to back or side to side.
Sniffing or licking people or objects.
Chewing on things that aren’t edible.
Placing body parts within mouths.
Rocking whole body.
Jumping, pacing, running, tiptoeing or spinning.
Should Stimming Be Controlled?
Stimming can be a harmless behaviour that people with autism use for self-regulation. It can help them reduce their anxiety. It can also be a way to calm themselves when they experience a sensory overload. So, many feel that stimming should not be controlled because it can take away a person’s coping mechanism for stressful situations.
However, some stimming behaviours can be self-injurious and unmanageable. Head banging, excessive scratching, and pinching can cause serious physical pain. Stimming can also interfere with a child’s learning and social interactions. If a child is staring at objects, it takes their attention away from classroom instruction. In such cases, stimming can be managed by appropriate interventions. Stimming is typically considered to be a response to insufficient sensorimotor stimulation. So, providing replacement behaviours such as squeezing a stress ball or engaging in sensory play activities that involve fine motor skills can help manage stimming.
Stimming should not be looked at as an embarrassing or inconvenient behaviour. Nor should it by any means be punished. One of the ways to manage stimming behaviours is by helping people with autism become aware of their triggers. Giving them alternative coping strategies and offering psychological support can also enable them to deal with their emotions in a more positive an safe manner.