Stimming helps autistic people self-regulate and is harmless by default, but there are still things you need to know about autism and stimming.
7 Things parents need to know about autism and stimming
1. What is stimming?
Stimming consists of repetitive behaviors or movements. It is how autistic people recover from stress or energy loss. Self-stimulatory behaviors help them to self-regulate so they can function. Autistic people use stimming to create energy or cope with their environment.
2. 3 Rules about stimming
There are three main stimming rules that can also apply to other behaviors, like expressing anger:
- You cannot hurt yourself.
- You cannot hurt other people.
- You cannot destroy property.
These rules keep autistics, and the people around them, safe. In some cases, destroying property is okay. For example, if they property is theirs or designated to fulfill a particular sensory need (ripping paper, or other destructive behaviors channeled into safer outlets.)
3. Types of autistic stimming
There are five main types of autistic stimming:
- Auditory/Verbal Stimming – hearing and sound, e.g. clapping, tapping, covering or uncovering ears, humming, echolalia (repeating words or sounds other people said)
- Olfactory/Taste Stimming – smelling and tasting, e.g. sniffing people or objects, putting objects in their mouth, eating the same food everyday
- Tactile Stimming – touch, e.g. feeling soft objects, wearing a particular fabric, tapping fingers to each other
- Vestibular Stimming – movement and balance, e.g. swaying from side to side, rocking back and forth, walking on tiptoes, spinning, stim dancing, hand flapping, pacing
- Visual Stimming – sight, e.g. looking at a painting or other form of art, preferring a certain pattern or color, staring at shadows on the wall, looking at aesthetic (can be a person, too)
4. Autistic stimming is not harmful
Stimming is mostly harmless and good. Stereotypes paint a different picture, positioning autistic stimming as only harmful behaviors.
While stimming can be harmful, most of it is not harmful. Stimming should only be stopped if it breaks one of the three aforementioned rules.
If an autistic person stimming is making a non-autistic person uncomfortable because of their stimming — so long as it is not of the sexual nature or involving indecent exposure — it should not be stopped.
5. Self-injurious stims need to be redirected
Do you touch a hot plate after a waiter tells you the plate is hot?
Forcing an autistic person to stop stims of the self-harming nature is not going to make them stop. It’s not going to encourage them to find alternative behaviors. On the contrary, you will be encouraging the harmful stims by not providing a viable alternative.
Stimming is self-regulatory behavior — an autistic person’s way of coping — so they will always stim in one way or another.
6. It’s not always a conscious act
Autistic people don’t always know when they’re stimming because it is so second nature. If you catch your autistic child performing a stim you’ve told them to stop doing, do not punish them. Chances are, they didn’t even realize they were doing it!
Stimming should only ever be stopped if it’s harmful, but “stopped” isn’t the right word here. Harmful stimming behaviors should be redirected instead, so the autistic person learns a safer coping mechanism. You might have to remind them several times over the course of a few months about the safer stim.
Since autistic children experience trauma as a direct result of being autistic, they might have a trauma disorder if they’re constantly reverting to old behaviors. Dissociation is common in neurodivergent individuals.
Dissociative identity disorder (DID) in children looks like varying moods, pretending/believing they are animals and acting like animals, bad memory and “reverting” to old behaviors. DID is not a violent disorder, but might be the reason why you have to continuously remind your autistic child of a safer stim (1-2 years).
7. Not all stimming is related to autism
Stimming is a neurodivergent trait and not inherently autism. If you stim, you might be neurodivergent yourself.
Neurotypical people engage in repetitive, self-stimulatory behaviors, but they do not stim as much as neurodivergent people. Fidgeting when bored or bouncing your foot/knee when impatient are examples of stimming that are not directly related to neurodivergence.
You can stim and not be neurodivergent. If you stim as much as a neurodivergent person, you are probably not neurotypical.
Does your child using stimming behaviors? Share about it in the comments below.