Stimming – what is it & why do children do it?

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I’ve been working with a wonderful family who were worried about their son who spins round and round on the floor regularly and they wondered why he did it and what was the purpose behind it.

I suggested that he may be stimming, to relieve his anxiety, stress and overwhelming feelings.

Self-stimulatory behaviour, also known as stimming and self-stimulation, is the repetition of physical movements, sounds, or repetitive movement of objects common in people with developmental disabilities, and is most common in people with autistic spectrum disorders.

It is considered a way in which autistic people calm and stimulate themselves. Experts and therapists view this behaviour as a protective response to being overly sensitive to stimuli, where  the person blocks out the less predictable environmental stimuli. Sensory processing disorder is also given as a reason by some experts for the condition. Another theory is that stimming is a way to relieve anxiety, and other emotions.

Common stimming behaviours (sometimes called stims) include: hand flapping, rocking, head banging, repeating noises or words, snapping fingers, spinning objects. Stimming  is almost always a symptom of autism, but it is also regarded as part of some non-autistic individuals’ behavioural patterns too.

The biggest difference between autistic and non-autistic stimming is the type of stim and the quantity of stimming.

There’s no doubt whatsoever that computer games increase stimming and also significantly increase anxiety – particularly amongst children who don’t like to lose.

A person with autism can stim on almost anything; it just needs to be something that appeals to them.

Here are some common behaviours:

Visual. Staring at lights; doing things to make the vision flicker such as repetitive blinking or shaking fingers in front of the eyes; staring at spinning objects.

Auditory. Listening to the same song or noise, for instance rewinding to hear the same few notes over and over. Making vocal sounds, tapping ears, snapping fingers etc.

Tactile. Rubbing the skin with hands or with another object, scratching.

Taste/smell. Sniffing objects or people; licking or chewing on things, often things that aren’t edible. Pica can overlap with stimming.

Verbal. Echolalia, basically: repeating sounds, words or phrases without any obvious regard for their meaning.

Proprioception. This means the body’s ability to feel where it is and what it’s doing; it’s often a sensation that autism can dull. Hence, a lot of stimming involves things like rocking, swinging, jumping, pacing, running, tiptoeing or spinning – all of which give the body’s sense of balance and position a boost.

Stimming is an area that’s still being researched, but the likely explanation is that there’s no one reason why someone stims.

I asked the family to notice when he did the spinning round and round on the floor. To notice what was happening just before as I wanted to find out his triggers and what was causing his need to release something bothering him.

As I think a better question to ask yourself is, ‘How is my child using stimming?’ The answer to that may vary from day to day and moment to moment. For instance: if you’re in a busy environment and your son or daughter is stressed, they might stim as a way of shutting things out, releasing pressure, tension or anxiety or their feelings of intensity.

If they’re tired at the end of a long day, they might stim to keep themselves going. If they’re anxious about something, they might stim to calm down. If they don’t want to do something, they might stim as a way of blocking out the demand.

We discussed whether they should stop their son from stimming.

He only does it at home when he is overwhelmed by a sense of competitiveness with his brother and helplessness with some rather inflexible rules.

In most cases stimming is harmless – in fact, many adults with autism argue very strongly that it’s a positive thing in their lives that makes them happy and keeps their stress levels down, and that trying to keep a child from stimming entirely is rather unkind.

A better question to ask yourself is probably, ‘Are there circumstances in which we should interrupt or discourage stimming?’ The answer to that is ‘yes’  sometimes there are.

There are stims that are what’s called ‘self-injurious’, such as your child banging their head on the floor and clearly that’s not a good idea so they need you to intervene.

For more specialist advice go to Ambitious About Autism the national charity for children and young people with autism.

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