Adorable thoughtful little child with curly blond hair sitting chewing a finger and staring ahead... child with autism stimming while chewing a finger

Understanding Stimming and Autism: The Good and Bad Side of Anxious Behaviours

What is stimming? Stimming – or stims – are a wide variety of self-stimulating behaviours that people with autism may exhibit when experiencing sensory overload or high levels of anxiety. Stimming can be a repetitive motion such as hand flapping, rocking, repetition of words or phrases (echolalia), vocalizations, or even the repetitive movement of objects. Stimming still puzzles many neurotypicals, who often want to eradicate or control stims. While stimming may seem alarming or strange to the rest of us, these behaviours do serve a purpose for those on the spectrum.

What Does Stimming Do That Is Positive?

Stimming can help a person with ASD deal with sensory overload, and anxiety in a postive way. A very good blog post from The Mighty explains in detail what those with ASD experience when stimming and why they need to do it. Some examples of stimming are rocking, hand flapping, head banging, stroking a piece of cloth; all can serve as a calming strategy. As one woman with ASD explains:

“Sometimes when I feel overwhelmed, upset or angry, I need to let it out. I feel antsy when I’m over stimulated, so I need to move around and let out some noise. It’s the only way I know how to cope. It calms me down. A common one for me is humming loudly to myself (sometimes with my ears plugged or covered) and most commonly, I’ll bounce my leg. It’s involuntary, so I don’t always realize I’m bouncing my leg. It bothers some people, but I can’t help it.”

Temple Grandin described stimming this way:

“When I did stims such as dribbling sand through my fingers, it calmed me down. When I stimmed, sounds that hurt my ears stopped. Most kids with autism do these repetitive behaviours because it feels good in some way. It may counteract an overwhelming sensory environment, or alleviate the high levels of internal anxiety these kids typically feel every day.”

Chris Bonnello from Autistic Not Weird points out that many non-autistic people exhibit stimming behaviours as well – they just aren’t as visible.

“What’s it like to stim? You tell me. Most non-autistic people impulsively tap their feet, drum their fingers or let out exasperated sighs. They’re all natural forms of self-expression. The theory behind autistic stimming is the same — we’re just the ones who get called out for expressing ourselves more visibly than you!”

What is harmful stimming?

Stims that are uncontrollable, occur excessively in inappropriate settings, or prevent a child from socially acceptable interaction, may need to be addressed. Far more serious are unhealthy stims like self-injurious behaviors. These can include hair pulling, biting, hitting oneself, hitting the head against something in a harmful way, or picking/nail biting to the point of injury. Why would a person engage in self injuring stimulation? Possibly because their overload or source of anxiety is so overwhelming, it requires a much more serious stimulation to block it out.  As Kristen Lindsmith points out in her blog post on stimming – pain is the one sensation that will overwhelm all others.

“If you walk into a house with too many cats you may cringe at the strong scent of kitty litter, but if you stay and hang around you’ll stop noticing the smell. This isn’t about attention, this is a physiological reaction. You really do stop smelling the cat pee. But if you’re in pain, you won’t acclimate to it. As long as the reason for the pain is still present, your nervous system will keep on sending you those signals. Not only that, but it will prioritize that sensation above others.”

What Can You Do To Help Someone Stop Harmful Stimming?

CBC recently featured a story about a young man who resides in a lock down unit in a hospital in Nova Scotia. Matthew Meisner is severely affected by autism and engages in the dangerous side of self-stims. When you read about how Matthew spends his day and how he is supported, it breaks your heart. His quality of life does not need to be what it is now. The Low Arousal Approach from the UK deals with challenging behaviour and how to manage it. This approach advocates for no restraints or punitive consequences for behaviour. Listed below are the two main techniques to gently help a person who engages in harmful stimming.

  1. Remove the cause. When this type of overload stimming is occurring, the problem stimulus that is causing the overload must be removed. It’s best if you can address what is causing the overload behaviour to ramp up, and pre-emptively remove the stressor BEFORE overload happens and harmful stimming starts. I have written about how to understand what autistic overload is in a past blog post that has some helpful tips.
  2.  Redirect to something less harmful. What do you do if you can’t remove the overload stressor, or can’t figure out what it is? Redirect the behaviour while still addressing the need for stimulation. See if you can redirect the person to a comfort stim that is less harmful. If they are really in overload mode, this might mean choosing other painful but safe coping stims like holding an ice cube, listening to loud music, or drawing on a piece of paper with a pencil until it is entirely black. Working with the person who is having the behaviours to find something that works and isn’t going to harm them is the key.

Kirsten Lindsmith’s blog is one of the best posts I’ve read on the self-injurious side of stimming. Kirsten is on the spectrum herself and gives strategies for both the autistic individual and the caregiver. I rarely see advice for both people involved in an article. With the advent of greater understanding, education, and the development of methods like the Low Arousal Approach, I hope that people like Matthew Meisner will be helped through a gentle approach that will empower both the person with the harmful behaviours and the person who is trying to help them stop.

Further Reading

From Anxiety to Meltdown

Understanding and Treating Self-Injurious Behavior in Autism

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16 Comments Moderation Policy

  1. Barbara says:

    My adult daughter aged 34 I suspected is on Asperger spectrum and we as a family have coped with all her traits however over the past few months what started off as tics is now full blown stimming. She stamps on floor punches sides of sofa slaps her face amongst other things. There are no triggers I’m aware of but it’s constant. I’m afraid she’s going to hurt herself and I don’t know what to do…..

  2. Leo says:

    My name is Leo, and I’m 16 years old. I have ADHD, general anxiety, and social anxiety, and I believe that I may be on the spectrum. I tend to flap my hands whenever I’m really excited or happy. My dad says that I need to stop the flapping because it’s disruptive and distracting to other people, but there aren’t any other stims that provide the same feeling. How can I explain to my dad why I stim and why it’s unhelpful to try and stop the stimming?

    • You need to let your dad know that it is a way that you express yourself and you can’t change that. My son is 22 and still does what you do when he is happy or excited. There is nothing wrong with it. You need to be yourself and do what is right for you.

  3. NATALIE GASPERI says:

    Whats a replacement for genital stimming for a boy who is severely autistic?

    • Natalie, what type of clothing does he wear? Is he right into his pants or is this stimming done externally on the outside of the clothing? You may be able to redirect this behavior with a fidget toy. Having clothing that allows less access to genitals can help reduce this. Stimming does have a function as it is often self-soothing. You may have to experiment with different fidget toys to find one that works.

  4. Alitheia says:

    If you have heard about Stephen Porge’s Polyvagal theory, stimming makes absolute sense. Those are self-soothing behaviours that calm you down, bring you back in a place of feeling safe. Stephen Porges even recommends to play an instrument, gargle or hum to stimulate the Ventral Vagus. Peter Levine uses the VOO-sound for the same reason. In fact stimming  is a genius tool and people should consider it weird. 

  5. Andrea says:

    Hi. My 12 yo daughter all of a sudden stopped flapping her arms and began holding her breath. She’s always had a fast breathing pattern but now she’s holding it. We are also noticing and getting complaints of dizziness. She’s fallen several times. We’ve already had the blood work and ct scans done and have a neurologist appointment 5 months away. Any idea why the change in behavior and what can I do to help her? Nothing has changed in her surroundings and she has a pretty stress free environment. 

    • Andrea, do you have any idea why the arm flapping stopped? Is it possible that someone tried to stop this and it has been replaced with holding her breath? Does that have a pattern to it? When does it occur? Is the breath holding causing the dizziness?if you can answer these questions, I may be able to troubleshoot for you.

  6. Susan says:

    My daughters new stimming behavior is picking.  It is so hard and this occurs when she’s mad or has to do something she does want to.  Other forms of stimming are slapping arm or face.  As a small child she would pull hair, pick belly button, bang head on the ground. I try to give her Calm Child syrup which has helped but fully effective.  Is this a behavior to medicate if they are harmful to their selves?

    • This behavior is often sensory related as a result of overload to the sensory system. You will have to be a detective and try to keep a log book of when there harmful stims occur to pinpoint their function. Does this happen when a transition is occurring? During meal preparation (some people find the smell of certain foods very alarming)? Here is a link to some information on self-injurious behavior from the Autism Research Institute which you may find helpful to pinpoint the cause – https://www.autism.com/symptoms_self-injury

  7. Marsha Chapman says:

    I currently work with a pre-schooler who stims by hand flapping or holding a straight object in his fingers and moving his hand up and down ( so that pencils look like they are made out of rubber) To me it appears that he does this to cope with the 10-15 other children around him. He is a very happy child and observes the other children. I don’t have an issue with his stimming with objects, however there has been some debate over it and that if we take a stim toy away so he can have a diaper changed or something else, we are not to give it back. I disagree! I feel that if he willingly or even non willingly gives it, he should get it back because it is serving a purpose to him. Is there any research that you can provide me or direct me to that states this is perfectly healthy for him to do? I just want him to adjust at his own pace and not have it forced on him. Thank you

    • Marsha, it is you that are on the right track, not the people who are saying you should not give back the toy. If you remove a stim toy, it will be replaced with something else or some other behavior which may not be desirable. Here is another article on stimming – https://www.carautismroadmap.org/stimming-what-is-it-and-does-it-matter/ and this one – https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319714.php . You never take away a stimming article suddenly. It should not be forced or this will lead to challenging behavior.

      I am pleased to hear how happy this child is and that is the main thing. We often don’t talk about happiness and well being around individuals with an ASD, yet it should be the most important thing.

      The putting of an object in his fingers and moving it up and down may be a way of reducing the sensory input coming from the other children around him.

      Marsha, stick to your guns as you are doing the right thing. Let me know if you need any more direction.

  8. Debbie mcintyre says:

    Hi my daughter is nine with ASD her stimming is a lot of facial movements and hand she is in grade four and it is affecting her social life just wondering if  anyone had any ideas how to handle this 

    • Debbie, I am not sure how to answer your question. Are you certain that the facial movements are stims and not tics? Are they involuntary movements? Could you describe the facial movements?

    • Alix says:

      Hi! In order to change this behavior, you have to understand its FUNCTION so that you replace it with another behavior that serves the SAME FUNTION. Best of luck with your daughter’s progress!

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