If you or someone you know has a child recently diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, you might have wondered what the term "stimming" really means. Or maybe you've noticed your child wiggling their hands around a lot, or spinning around over and over for no reason, and worried whether this could be a sign of a developmental issue. The answer: It depends. Stimming, or self-stimulating behavior, refers to any repetitive motion that provides sensory or stress relief, according to the Autism Research Institute. But whether a stimming behavior means autism depends on the individual.
Stereotypy is the actual medical term for self-stimulating behavior, according to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, but people in the autism community often just call it "stimming," and the behaviors themselves are referred to as "stims." Stims can take a wide variety of forms, from excessive blinking to arm-flapping to vocalizing to twirling and rocking, according to the Applied Behavior Analysis website.
Sadly, stimming is often misunderstood for deliberate misbehavior, especially in children with autism. When that happens, it can result in the type of nasty confrontation or crisis that gets caught on camera and becomes a viral story, such as the family who was reportedly asked to leave their Portland-bound plane after the pilot made an emergency landing. Why? The pilot "didn't feel comfortable flying" with the family's 15-year-old daughter vocalizing and flapping her hands in her seat, a stimming behavior she makes when she is hungry, CBS reported.
Stimming is a part of daily life for many families affected by autism. But people outside that community may find it hard to understand, or even resent being around a child who's showing a self-stimulating behavior. But as with most things in life, a little understanding can go a long way. Here's what you need to know if you're unsure what this phenomenon is all about — or if you're a parent who's concerned about your own child's behavior.
Almost everyone stims at some point
Doodling, nail-biting, foot-jiggling... we all do something self-stimulating now and then. This type of habit provides a sensory sensation that helps us calm down or focus (think of all the times you've tapped or chewed a pencil during a test). But as Healthline explained, the difference between typical self-soothing and stimming with autism is how much the behavior gets in the way of learning, socializing, and other facets of daily life. Most of us can stop tapping our fingers when a tense situation is over, or when someone asks us to cut it out. For someone with autism, the behavior is harder to control, and so it can interfere with their ability to do well in school or make friends.
Not everyone who stims has autism
Many young children engage in stimming: humming, finger-tapping, or even banging their head into their pillow at night. This is usually normal behavior that goes away over time. But when stimming is combined with other behaviors, such as speech delays, lack of eye contact, obsession over particular interests, over-sensitivity to stimuli like noises, or distress over changes in routine (all red flags of autism, according to the Cleveland Clinic), then it's time to talk to a medical professional.
There are different reasons for stimming
Autism is a complex disorder, and so are its symptoms. Some people with the condition are easily overwhelmed by sights, sounds and other stimuli; others have underdeveloped nervous systems and can't process sensory information quickly. Depending on the individual and the situation, stimming behavior can be either stimulating or calming, according to the Autism Research Institute. Either way, it's a coping mechanism that helps a person with autism live in a world that often seems confusing.
Kids with autism aren't trying to annoy you
Contrary to popular belief, people with autism don't lack empathy, according to a study referenced in The Huffington Post. The original study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, showed that adults with autism can make moral judgments and care for other people. However, they may have a lowered ability to understand how other people think and feel, explained the study's lead author, Dr. Giorgia Silani of the University of Vienna. So a child with autism may not realize that her humming or spinning is disrupting the classroom or getting on the nerves of the parents at the playground.
People with autism can explain, if you take the time to listen
Again, autism is complicated, and no two people with autism are alike. The condition can affect the ability to communicate, so some people are unable to verbalize their reasons for stimming. Others express their reasons very eloquently, as this article from The Mighty illustrated: People with autism were asked to explain why they stim; some described it as a way to release internal pressure and anxiety, while others said it helped them make sense of the world. One woman explained that stimming is something she simply has to do: "It makes me feel uncomfortable when [it] cannot be done."
Some stimming can be dangerous
Unfortunately, not every self-stimulating action is as simple or harmless as tongue-clicking or finger-wiggling. In extreme cases, children or adults with autism may hit or bite themselves, bang their head against hard surfaces, scratch their skin to the point of infection, and other self-harming activities. The Center for Autism Research explained that this behavior may be a way to express frustration, get attention, override another pain in the body (like a toothache), or get out of doing something the person doesn't want to do. People with certain genetic disorders may also be more likely to engage in harmful stimming.
There are ways to cope with stimming.
Because stimming helps children with autism relieve anxiety or overstimulation, experts cautioned that trying to stop the behavior altogether may not be the best option, according to VeryWell Health, unless it poses a real danger to the child or others. Instead, a doctor or therapist may recommend one or more options to reduce or avoid the stims.
Applied Behavior Analysis, a series of reinforcement-based techniques to build skills and improve behavior, is one common treatment for stimming, explained the Child Mind Institute. A trained therapist will work with the child in the home, school, or other environment, establishing goals for each desired behavior or skill, breaking down the goals step by step, and then helping the child achieve each step through positive reinforcement. Children with autism may also be treated with other types of therapies (such as occupational, educational, or alternative therapy) or with medication, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Another approach to stimming involves replacing the problem behavior with a less-distracting alternative, Speech and Language Kids explained. For example, children who flap their arms may be redirected to squeeze a sensory ball. A child who stims when he sits for too long could ask to get up and move around for a minute.
Being aware of what stimming is all about — and why it's such an important coping mechanism, especially for people with autism — could go a long way toward helping stop the judgment and mom-shaming that so many moms of children with autism go through.