Understanding ‘Stimming’ and Autism

Self-stimulatory behaviour, otherwise known as stimming, is the repetitive movement of the body or objects and can be trait of those with autism and developmental disabilities or challenges.

Stimming can be triggered when people are happy, excited, bored, stressed, anxious or overwhelmed and can show behaviours such as tapping fingers, pacing, or spinning an object regularly in their hands. Stimming can actually be expressed using all the different senses, with touch being most common.

But why does stimming happen? Are there different types of stimming, and can it cause any day-to-day issues? We cover all these concerns in this blog.

Causes of stimming

It is not clear what causes stimming. Research suggests that stimming arouses the nervous system and provides a pleasure response from the release of certain chemicals found in the brain called beta-endorphins.
Some theories suggest that it could counteract a lack of sensitivity by stimulating the sensory system, while others suggest that stimming may have a calming effect, focusing attention away from an overwhelming experience.
Whatever the cause, stimming can provide great comfort to those with autism, at any age.

Types of stimming

1. Auditory stimming
Auditory stimming uses the person’s sense of hearing and sound. It may include behaviours such as:

  • vocal sounds, such as humming, grunting, or high-pitched shrieking
  • tapping on objects or ears, covering and uncovering ears, and finger-snapping
  • repetitive speech, such as repeating song lyrics, book sentences, or movie lines

2. Tactile stimming
Tactile stimming uses the person’s sense of touch. It may include behaviours such as:

  • skin-rubbing or scratching, with the hands or objects
  • hand movements, such as opening and closing one’s fists
  • finger-tapping

3. Visual stimming
Visual stimming uses a person’s sense of sight. It may include repetitive behaviours such as:

  • staring or gazing at objects, such as ceiling fans or lights
  • repetitive blinking or turning lights on and off
  • moving fingers in front of the eyes
  • hand-flapping
  • eye tracking or peering from the corners of the eyes
  • object placement, such as lining up objects

4. Vestibular stimming
Vestibular stimming uses a person’s sense of movement and balance. It may include repetitive behaviours such as:

  • rocking front to back or side to side
  • spinning
  • jumping
  • pacing

5. Olfactory or taste stimming
Olfactory and taste stimming use a person’s sense of smell and taste. They may include repetitive behaviours such as:

  • sniffing or smelling people or objects
  • licking
  • tasting objects by placing them in the mouth

Complications of stimming

While stimming is not considered to be dangerous, it can have adverse physical, emotional, or social effects on some individuals.

If there is a known trigger that sparks off stimming, it may be helpful to try to remove or alter the situation to reduce anxiety and stress. For example, if they are scared of dogs, it may not be wise to visit a park which is popular with dog walkers.

Stimming may interfere with attention and learning abilities, as well as social interaction with others and unfortunately, for those who do not fully understand how those with autism cope with their emotions, this behaviour can be upsetting, distracting, or frightening.

Sadly, this misunderstanding can lead to those with autism becoming socially isolated or restricted from doing what they want to. Therefore, it is important not to stare at someone when they are stimming. If you have children with you, simply explain what is happening to help with education and move on. It is just a form of expressing emotions and should be of no harm to anyone at all.

Can you stop stimming?

Stimming can be a form of comfort and could cause more harm if they are restricted from doing it. However, if the form of stimming has the potential to cause harm to the person or others, then finding a safer stimming alternative could be an option. For example, instead of smacking their head, maybe squeezing a ball will have the same desired effect.

It may even be possible to encourage the person to do the repetitive behaviour only when they are in a safe environment, such as in their home or the home of a loved one.

With the current advances in therapies for autism, families do not have to face these challenges alone. Speaking to a doctor or another health professional can help determine the best method to manage stimming safely.

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