What is stimming?
Stimming is self-stimulating behavior that is typically repetitive in nature.
The term stimming was coined by the autistic community to discuss what is often referred to by professionals as “stereotypy” and described in the DSM-5 as “stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypes, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).”
Uh…can you give me some examples?
Sure! Stimming includes a wide range of actions including, but not limited to, the following:
- Hand flapping
- Foot tapping
- Rubbing one’s face
- Finger wiggling
- Repetitive vocalizations
- Hair twirling
- And much more!
Why do people stim?
Lots of reasons! Most of the reasons fall under the following categories:
- Sensory Regulation: for Autistic people and people with SPD, stimming is a way to provide sensory input to avoid understimulation as well as a way to replace or block out bad sensory input to avoid overstimulation.
- Emotional Regulation: many neurodivergent people stim to process or release emotions. Much like scratching an itch, stimming can provide release of unpleasant emotions.
- Emotional Expression: Autistic people often view stimming as Autistic body language because stimming is one of the ways we express ourselves. Much as people smile when happy or laugh at a joke, Autistic people often stim to express our emotions. For example, many Autistic people flap our hands when happy.
In a sense, everyone stims. Ever drummed your fingers or tapped your foot when bored or impatient? Ever doodled or clicked your pen when bored in class? These actions and more are repetitive and provide sensory input.
However, in neurotypical people, these actions are often referred to as fidgeting. Further, the experience of fidgeting for neurotypical people seems to be quite different from Autistic experiences of stimming or the experiences that other neurodivergent people have with stimming.
Autistics, ADHDers, schizophrenics, people with anxiety, and people with SPD are the people who tend to stim the most.
So, what is Autistic stimming like?
While not all Autistic people stim, those of us who do often describe it as a natural response to an internal urge like laughing at a joke or scratching an itch. For many of us, stimming is an integral and wonderful part of being Autistic.
Stimming for Autistic people is often necessary for emotional well-being. Stimming is not only how we express emotions but also a way to regulate ourselves. Many of us have different stims for different emotional states and, if you take the time to learn our body language, you can often read our emotional states by watching us stim.
For us, stimming is a need. Think about a time you just needed to cry. You may have been able to hold it back for awhile. Your eyes may have been burning, your throat tightening. The need to cry growing stronger and stronger the more you try to push it back. When you finally cried, there was a sense of release. It was as if the tears carried away the pain.
Or, think of an itch that you can’t scratch. The feeling builds and builds until it’s all you can think about. The need to scratch the itch becomes overwhelming. When you finally are able to scratch it, it’s so relieving and pleasurable.
That’s what stimming can be like for Autistic people.
Yet, this doesn’t accurately describe stimming. Stimming is pure bliss flowing through hands that flap as if to carry me away. Stimming is tranquility and peace radiating through my being as the hammock presses around me and I rock gently back and forth. Stimming is a foot that can’t tap fast enough as my brain focuses in on the project of the day, a metronome to pace my thoughts. Stimming is the deep pressure of tight hug that calms the anxious ball of energy pulsating and wriggling and twisting inside my ribs. Stimming is my hands pressed into my face when the pain is too much, small relief flowing from the pressure of hands rubbing skull. Stimming is the rubbing of my feet against each other carrying me to sleep. Stimming is hand flaps that express different emotions depending on the speed of the flaps and where I hold my hands. Stimming humming as I flap my hands to block the pain of the high pitched beeping.
Stimming is emotions flowing through movements, a pure expression of self. Stimming is how I process the world around me. Stimming is as natural for me as breathing.
What senses can you stim with?
All of them!
We can stim with any of our senses, and there are more than just five. While most of us were taught about the five senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell), there are way more senses than that. Some of the other senses are:
- Vestibular: also known as equilibrioception, this is our sense of balance which allows us to sense body movement, direction, and acceleration
- Thermoception: our sense of temperature
- Proprioception: our sense of where our bodies are in space
- Nociception: our sense of pain
- Interoception: our sense of what is happening inside our bodies which includes things like sensing hunger or when we need to use the bathroom
So… how do you stim with different senses?
Let’s look at some examples! (please note, this list is nowhere near complete. There are many, many more stims and I didn’t cover all of our senses):
- Hand flapping
- Watching paint mixing videos
- Watching a lava lamp
- Waving your hand in front of your face
- Chewing or sucking on a chew toy or other object
- Eating food
- Echolalia – repeating words or phrases
- Listening to music
- Clicking a pen to hear the sound
- Squeezing a squeeze toy
- Touching soft fabrics
- Splashing in water
- Running hands over a textured surface
- Throwing items
What’s are stim toys?
Stim toys are objects used for stimming. There are a ton of different stim toys for different kinds of stimming. Some common stim toys are tangles, fidget cubes, chewelry (jewelry designed for chewing), stress balls, and more.
[image description: an assortment of over 15 stim toys on a tan background next to a black bag.]
Stim toys are often a way for Autistic people or other neurodivergent people to stim less noticeably or in a safer way. For instance, fidget cubes and tangles are small objects that can be used without attracting a lot of attention which can be great for stimming in situations when other people might be judgemental or stimming. Chewelry can be something safe to chew on which is great for people who have a tendency to bite themselves or objects that aren’t safe for mouths.