People who stim might appear as if they're intentionally moving or making noises in ways that don't serve an obvious purpose. However, stimming serves a purpose: People stim to communicate, self-soothe, or even just because it's enjoyable.
Stimming is common among people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In fact, the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition" (DSM-5) even includes stimming as a diagnostic criterion for autism. People with other neurodivergencies, like schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), might also stim.
What Is Stimming?
Stimming is short for "self-stimulation." Medically, stimming is known as a "stereotypic" behavior. Almost all people engage in self-stimulating behaviors. For example, you may doodle, tap your pen, or bounce your foot. Usually, people describe those actions as fidgeting.
Unlike people with ASD, others may notice when those behaviors bother others around them. For instance, if continuously tapping your pen becomes too loud for your peers, you may stop making the noise.
In contrast, when people with ASD stim, they might do it in obvious and less socially accepted ways: hand-flapping, rocking back and forth, or repeating sounds or phrases. With ASD, stimming may include behavior that is unconventional, intense, or repetitive.
ASD refers to a spectrum of behaviors and symptoms (that include former diagnoses like Asperger's syndrome), which cause difficulties with communicating, learning, and behaving. Often, stimming helps with those difficulties. For example, research has found that stimming alleviates anxiety and energy. Also, people with ASD may stim to help them process and learn new information.
Examples of Stimming
Generally, stimming includes any repetitive movements that alleviate stress and provide comfort. For example, stims may consist of the following:
- Motor stimming: These are repetitive motions, like hand-flapping, rocking your body, spinning, jumping, or moving your fingers. Some motor stims may include self-injurious behaviors, like hitting, skin-picking, or scratching.
- Echolalia: Some people stim by repeating meaningless words or phrases.
- Visual stimming: Stimming may also include staring at stimuli like lights.
- "Non-functional" behaviors: This may include continuously adjusting objects.
Why People Stim
Often, stimming links to feeling anxious, excited, stressed, or angry. In other words, people may stim more when certain situations or triggers overwhelm them.
Specifically, people may stim for the following reasons:
- Helps with sensory processing: Some people may stim because it helps with processing and learning information or communicating with others.
- Manages emotions: Stimming is a way to regulate stress and emotions. Like stress-relieving activities, such as running, reading, or painting, stimming helps get rid of tension. In fact, research has found that people often stim after an event that triggers stress. For example, people with ASD may feel tense in loud or exciting environments. Stimming allows people with ASD an outlet for their energy during those times.
- Improves focus: People with ASD may have trouble paying attention. Some evidence suggests that stimming is common in learning environments. The repetitive motions help some people focus and sort their thoughts.
How Stimming Can Affect Your Health
For the most part, due to its soothing effects, stimming provides several benefits for people with ASD to cope with communicating, learning, and behaving.
In contrast, since stimming often includes unusual behaviors, people who stim may feel marginalized by their peers. Also, stimming may involve self-injurious behaviors that increase the risk of poor health outcomes.
In a study published in 2019 in Autism, people with ASD told researchers they felt confused, angry, resentful, nervous, belittled, and ashamed when others told them to stop stimming. They stated that neurotypical people often misunderstand stimming, leading to social challenges.
Also, people with ASD reported an inability to function well if stimming is their usual coping mechanism. So, overall, stimming helps people with ASD tackle difficulties with communicating, learning, and behaving.
Specifically, a study published in 2018 in BMJ Case Reports found that the benefits of stimming include:
- Providing an outlet for overwhelming situations, like loud environments
- Easily communicating and interacting with others
- Calming feelings of anxiety, stress, fear, and anger
It's unclear why stimming feels good. Research has found that stimming activates neurotransmitters, chemicals in the brain that regulate emotions. For example, while stimming, the brain may release dopamine, glutamate, and aspartate, all providing relief or pleasure. Then, those satisfying feelings reinforce the need to stim.
Generally, stimming can provide several benefits. Still, the behavior may pose some risks for people who stim and others. For example, stimming may distract others, especially in learning environments. Also, people who stim may face belittling from their peers.
What's more, some people may develop dangerous stims. For example, motor stims may include hitting, skin-picking, or scratching, all of which cause bodily harm. Self-harm increases the risk of infections, fractures, and other injuries.
Some evidence suggests that caregivers follow a framework by the National Autistic Society To decrease the risk of bodily harm: structure, positive approaches and expectations, empathy, low arousal, and links (SPELL).
Using the SPELL framework, healthy stimming may include:
- Structure: Ensure the person who stims does so in a safe environment.
- Positive approaches and expectations: Use positive language so the person who stims can communicate easily.
- Empathy: Show compassion for the person who stims and their emotions.
- Low arousal: Eliminate overwhelming stimuli, such as loud noises, bright lighting, or odors. A low-arousal environment helps relaxes the person who stims.
- Links: Lastly, provide support and help the person who stims reach out to other support systems, like a healthcare provider.
How To Manage Stimming
If you're going to stim, ensure you aren't causing harm. Ask for help if stimming causes bodily harm, like bruises, scars, or other injuries. Trusted family and friends or a healthcare provider can help develop healthy stimming behaviors.
Also, when you stim in public, consider carrying a card that explains your behavior, communicates your needs, and reassures others that you are safe. That card can even include notes that educate those unfamiliar with stimming. However, if you feel pressured to not stim in public, create an affirming space to practice stims at home. Then, explain to your loved ones why stimming is essential to your well-being.
Ultimately, stimming is a coping or communication skill. Stimming can help you learn what triggers your emotions or feelings of being overwhelmed. Finding community support can help you navigate those triggers. For instance, pro-stimming spaces on social media can help you feel less alone.
Try not to let others shame you into changing harmless behaviors. In contrast, don't feel ashamed if you mask your stimming in specific environments or want to modify or stop doing them. You should be the one who makes that choice.
A Quick Review
Common among people with ASD, stimming involves repetitive motions that alleviate anxiety, manage strong emotions, and help with sensory processing. Stimming differs from fidgeting and often includes unusual behaviors, like hand-flapping or repeating meaningless words and phrases.
Stimming can help people with ASD with difficulty communicating, learning, and behaving. However, stimming may include self-injurious behaviors that may increase the risk of infections, fractures, and other poor health outcomes. So, if you stim, creating a support system and healthy environment is vital to stimming safely.
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