‘Stimming’ is a word used mainly by autistic people to refer to something that we do. Technically, everyone stims, but autistic people stim a lot more and often in ways that are considered abnormal or unusual. Stimming tends to be a very important part of our lives and something that we gain a lot of value from, whereas it is much less significant in non-autistic people’s lives.
If you have no idea what stimming is, you are not alone. Unfortunately, the concept is not very well known outside of autistic circles. I did not learn about stimming until after I realised I was autistic, despite it being a huge part of my daily life.
The word ‘stimming’ is (apparently) short for ‘self-stimulatory behaviour’ – and I say ‘apparently’ because I have never actually found a source to back this up, but it is what everyone says (search online for ‘stimming’ if you don’t believe me). Regardless of whether or not the phrase ‘self-stimulatory behaviour’ is the true origin of the word ‘stimming’, it is certainly a good summary of what it means.
Stimming is anything a person does to provide themselves with some kind of stimulation. Many people are familiar with images of autistic people flapping their hands, staring at objects, or rocking back and forth. These are all examples of stims.
Stims can be classified according to which senses they stimulate, or what is involved in doing them, including:
In addition to the five senses that we learn about in school, we also have other senses. These include our sense of acceleration, our sense of balance (equilibrioception), our sense of where our body parts are (proprioception), our sense of temperature (thermoception), and our sense of pain (nociception). There are stims for each of these senses.
Many of the most well known stims – for example, rocking back and forth, spinning in circles, hand flapping – are ones that stimulate the senses of balance, acceleration and body position. These stims are more obvious to other people than subtler stims like smelling an object, which is probably why they are so well known.
There are also vocal and verbal stims. Vocal stims involve making a noise with your mouth, voice box, vocal chords and so on – such as humming, groaning, whistling, singing, screaming and shouting. Verbal stims are ones that involve using words (whether signed, written or spoken) – for example, repeating a word or phrase over and over again, quoting lines from a film or TV show, talking in a funny voice, or playing around with words by doing things like talking backwards, swapping syllables around, or making up rhymes.
When we think of stimming as anything a person does to provide themselves with stimulation, we shouldn’t necessarily think of this as just referring to sensory stimulation. For example, the stimulation provided by swapping syllables around or making up rhymes can be intellectual rather than sensory. Likewise, a person tapping their hands on a desk might also be getting mental stimulation from making up different rhythms.
Stimming is very important to autistic people. It is something we do a lot and its meaning and value in our lives is deeper than what may be obvious to the casual observer. In this section, I will look at the reasons for stimming, according to three categories (following Amethyst Schaber’s video on stimming): sensory seeking, expression, and self-regulation.
I think there are two main reasons why autistic people seek sensory input: pleasure and distraction. I will focus on sensory-seeking as pleasure-seeking here, and discuss sensory seeking as a distraction below.
Seeking out certain sensory experiences simply because you enjoy them is something that every human does. It is considered normal for people to enjoy (and sometimes spend money on) things like the feeling of being massaged, the smell of freshly cut grass, the taste and texture of chewing gum, and so on – even when those experiences perform no function other than the direct pleasure they provide.
Our senses evolved to give us information about what is happening around and within our bodies. The attachment of pleasure and pain to sensations developed to guide us towards behaviours that make us more likely to survive and reproduce (this is why freshly-baked bread smells amazing and rotting food smells disgusting). However, once we have the ability to take pleasure from something, we can choose to do it simply for the pleasure it provides, even when it doesn’t achieve anything else. This ability to choose to stop and smell the roses is part of what makes our lives interesting and enjoyable.
However, while everyone seeks sensory experiences, there are differences in the ways that autistic and non-autistic people do it. An autistic person might enjoy many of the sensory-seeking behaviours that are common among non-autistic people, but they often also have other sensory-seeking behaviours that are more unusual.
Personally, while I do enjoy smelling flowers and scented candles, what I enjoy even more is smelling books. Really old books are my favourite, but there are as many different types of book smells as there are flower smells, and I love them all. Whenever I encounter a new book, the first thing I do is smell it. When someone hands me a book, I sometimes absentmindedly open it up, dive my nose into its pages and take in a big whiff – usually resulting in a bemused reaction from the other person.
There is no fundamental difference between enjoying the smells of flowers and enjoying the smells of books. But since social norms are based on what neurotypical people do, sensory-seeking behaviours commonly done by non-autistic people are seen as normal, while those not commonly done by non-autistic people are more likely to be seen as abnormal, weird, unhealthy, excessive or obsessive.
One reason why autistic people engage in sensory-seeking behaviours that are uncommon among non-autistic people is that we are often highly sensitive to sensory experiences. I am very sensitive to noises – I notice sounds that most neurotypical people don’t, and I don’t have the same ability to block out background noise in order to focus that most neurotypical people seem to have. I am also very sensitive to light, and have to wear sunglasses on days when most people don’t.
This kind of sensitivity intensifies not only painful or distressing stimuli, but also pleasurable ones, meaning that autistic people can find pleasure in sensations that may be too subtle for most non-autistic people to take an interest in.
Another reason for autistic people’s unusual sensory interests is the fact that many of us have a love of repetition and rotation. This leads us towards stims that aren’t of much interest to non-autistic people, like rocking back and forth, or spinning in circles.
Autistic people often use stims to express things that non-autistic people might express in other ways. I will discuss three different kinds of expression that stimming is used for: emotional expression, creative expression, and expression of autistic identity.
Autistic people use stimming to express our emotions. If I am happy or excited, I might tap my hands or dance around. If I am anxious, I sometimes make a sort of low humming sound. And if I feel overwhelmed or stressed I might rock my body or squeeze my head between my hands. This is not particular to autistic people: non-autistic people might pace up and down when nervous, or bite their nails when anxious, for example, but they are more likely to express their emotions by using facial expressions and tone of voice.
For many autistic people, whose emotions tend to show a lot less in our facial expressions and voices, stimming is a much more significant form of emotional expression. I think this is part of what leads to the myth that autistic people are emotionless. Non-autistic people look for emotions in our faces and voices rather than in our stims and other changes in our behaviour. What is more, many of us have learned not to stim around non-autistic people due to the negative reactions that we get. In other words, we have been trained out of using one of our main forms of emotional expression when there are other people present.
It is especially important to recognise the importance of stimming as a form of emotional expression when it comes to those autistic people who do not, or tend not to, use words to communicate. It is vital that we learn to understand all the ways that people communicate their feelings, including stimming.
Many stims allow for creativity and improvisation in a way that reminds me of making music or dancing. When I pick up my guitar, it is occasionally to practise a song, but most of the time it is just to mess around and improvise. Often I am not even paying that much attention to what I’m playing – I’m just noodling around for the fun of it. Similarly, when a group of friends go out dancing, they don’t usually perform a choreographed routine they have learnt in advance – instead, they improvise moves, expressing themselves creatively. Stimming can provide a similar outlet.
Stimming can also allow us to express our identities as autistic people. For many of us, being autistic is a major part of who we are, yet we learn to hide our autistic traits in order to fit in and be accepted. This can be extremely isolating as it leaves us feeling trapped behind a mask with no one knowing the real us. Stimming openly can help us feel seen as our authentic selves.
Autistic people can easily become overwhelmed (e.g. by social interactions, sensory input or strong emotions), or get so lost in our own minds that we lose touch with what is happening around us, or get pulled into impulsive behaviour and distractions. It is therefore important that we have methods of self-regulation – the ability manage emotions, thoughts and behaviour – to help us prevent these things from happening too often and from being too extreme when they do happen.
The use of stimming to express emotions (discussed above) enables autistic people not only to communicate our emotions to others, but also to manage them.
Expressing emotions helps people regulate them. People who are upset often feel better after crying, people who are angry often feel calmer after ‘letting the anger out’ by listening to angry music or punching a punchbag, and research shows that naming your emotions reduces their intensity.
For many autistic people, stimming is one of the main ways that we express our emotions, and is therefore one of the main ways that we regulate them. If an autistic person is excited they might flap their hands. This self-expression gets the excitement out, reducing its intensity and preventing it from become overwhelming.
It is important to realise that the expression of an emotion is not the same thing as the emotion itself. For example, people cry when they are sad, but crying is not sadness. In fact, through crying, a sad person will often become less sad. Many people would agree that a caregiver who wants an upset child to feel better should not tell them to stop crying. Similarly, stims express emotions but the stims are not the emotions they express. Telling an over-excited autistic child to stop hand-flapping or telling an anxious autistic child to stop rocking does not stop them from being over-excited or anxious. It simply takes away their mechanism of regulating the emotion, making it more likely that they will become overwhelmed and overloaded.
Unfortunately, many autistic people have learnt to suppress our stims around other people. In some cases, this comes from caregivers, who tell the autistic person not to stim. In other cases, including mine, we teach ourselves not to stim as we try to copy the behaviour of the neurotypical people around us in order to fit in and be liked. This leaves many of us without effective ways to regulate our emotions when we are around other people, which is a problem because it is often around other people that we experience the most intense and overwhelming emotions.
It is well known that motion can aid thinking. People who need to think something through are often advised to go for a walk, and many of us have had the experience of being stuck on a problem only to later have the solution come to us when jogging or doing the washing up. It seems that having part of the brain occupied with a repetitive activity that doesn’t require much conscious input can help a person focus on other things more effectively.
It is therefore not surprising that many autistic people find that stimming helps with concentration – which is important as we can be very easily distracted. Although autistic people often have the ability to hyper-focus, we don’t always find it easy to direct this focus towards the things we want or need to achieve.
Probably my favourite concentration stim is rolling a coin along my fingers. I often do it when I am reading or watching something, and I find that it satisfies my need for stimulation enough that I can pay attention to the content.
Unfortunately, the importance of stimming for concentration is not widely understood. This is a particular an issue in educational settings, and is part of a broader problem in which schools seem to care less about their students’ learning than they do about making sure that they conform to arbitrary standards of behaviour and appearance.
Something that I have come to realise during my time teaching is that we have a very fixed idea of what a person who is concentrating looks like, and this image is based on what neurotypical people do when they concentrate: sitting up straight, sitting still and looking directly at the teacher or educational materials.
However, many neurodivergent children need to stim in order to stay focused, and many cannot think clearly while looking directly at something stimulating, like a teacher’s face or a diagram – and will therefore look away in order to think.
This means that what many neurodivergent children do when they are concentrating – fidget and look around the room – makes them look like a neurotypical child who is not concentrating, and most teachers cannot tell the difference. Neurodivergent children must therefore either they do what they need to do to concentrate, leading to likely punishment, or conform to the teacher’s demands and behave in a way that makes it difficult for them to focus, thereby unnecessarily placing them at an educational disadvantage.
Content Notice: In this section, I discuss examples of self-harm behaviours and compulsive behaviours.
The sensations provided by stimming can be used to block out distressing experiences, such as overwhelming sensory input or emotions. For example, if an autistic person is in a room full of people talking loudly and is finding it overloading, or if they are having an overwhelming emotional reaction to something, then they might stim to give themselves something else to focus on. This can prevent overwhelming experiences building up and spilling over into a meltdown or a shutdown – an extremely distressing event that can take a long time to recover from.
While using stims for distraction can be a beneficial self-regulation technique, there are some distraction stims which can be harmful to the person doing them, including some painful stims. Pain is a very effective distraction because it blocks out other sensations, like a ‘breaking news’ alert that interrupts whatever was previously on the screen. There is nothing inherently wrong with using pain as a distraction, but it becomes a problem when the painful stims being used are ones which are harmful, such as hitting your head against things, hitting yourself, biting yourself, or scratching yourself.
Other potentially harmful stims are repetitive, compulsive behaviours like nail-biting, picking at the skin, eating non-food items like paper (this is called Pica), and chewing on clothes.
It is important to realise, in the case of self-harmful stims, that the problem is not the fact that the autistic person is using stimming as a distraction. The problems are that they are experiencing distressing emotions or sensations, and that the stims they are using are self-harmful ones. There are two strategies that might help in this case. The first is to try to identify what is causing the overwhelming emotions/sensations and change it, so that the distraction is no longer needed. The second is to try to find replacement stims that perform the same function but without causing harm.
When I was a child, I found life in general, and especially school, extremely overwhelming. In response to the stress, anxiety and overload, I developed a few stims that, while they never caused me any serious harm, would definitely fall into the category of unhealthy stims. These were nail-biting, chewing my sleeves and eating paper – throughout secondary school and sixth-form college, I used to tear the corners off of all the pages in my books and eat them.
With great effort, at different points in my life I managed to train myself out of each of these behaviours. This was years before I realised I was autistic. If I or anyone around me had known enough about autism to realise that I was autistic when I was a child, then these behaviours could have been seen for what they were – stims that were allowing me to cope with distress. The sources of that distress could have been identified and dealt with – in fact, just the knowledge that I was autistic would have helped a lot – and, if I had realised how important stimming was to my emotional well-being, then I could have developed replacement stims, rather than relying on will-power to cut out the ones that I had been using to cope.
I have already mentioned dancing, stroking pets and pacing up and down as examples of stimulation-seeking behaviour that non-autistic people do. However, even if the desire for stimulation is not unique to autistic people, that does not mean that stimming is not an autistic trait. Most autistic traits are things that many or even most non-autistic people also do to some extent. For example, a lot of people play close attention to detail, find social interactions difficult and draining, have special interests, or are sensitive to noise. But what makes a person autistic is not any one trait: it is a combination of traits affecting many different areas of their life.
Stimming plays a much more significant role in the lives of autistic people than it does in those of most non-autistic people. Therefore it is important that it is recognised as an autistic trait.
A greater awareness of stimming would help more people to realise when they or someone they know is autistic and it would help autistic people to understand ourselves better.
If you surveyed the public and asked them to name as many features of autism as they could think of, I suspect that the most common answers would all be things that either aren’t true – such as claims that autistic people are emotionless or uninterested in other people – or things that are over-generalisations – such as claims that autistic people lack empathy and social skills or are good at maths. Misunderstandings about autism are widespread, and those who know the least about it overestimate their knowledge more than any other group.
This widespread misunderstanding is the primary reason why so many people’s autism goes unnoticed. I did not realise I was autistic until I was in my mid-twenties. This is because I believed the misconceptions about autism and so did everyone around me. Since I don’t match that description of autism very well, neither me nor anyone else was able to realise that I was autistic – despite the fact that with a decent understanding of what autism actually is, it would have always been obvious.
Once I did realise I was autistic, I then had to convince my GP to refer me for an assessment. Because my GP shared the above misconceptions of autism, this was unnecessarily difficult and stressful.
I also have to deal with sceptical friends, relatives and acquaintances, who have, on many occasions, denied that I am autistic because I don’t fit their understanding of what autism is.
If you listen to what autistic people say about their autism, you will find that there are certain things which regularly come up, and they are not the things listed above. They include: stimming, sensory differences, social difficulties, special interests, meltdowns/shutdowns, attention to detail, executive function impairment and intense emotions. You will also find many autistic people say that rather than lacking empathy, they feel hyper-aware of other people’s feelings – seemingly more so than the non-autistic people around them.
If these features of autism were well known, rather than the misleading ones described above, then my life to date would have been a lot easier. I would have been saved twenty-something years of finding everything difficult and not being able to make sense of anything in my life. And it would be a lot easier for me to be openly autistic and not to have to worry so much about people reacting badly to autistic behaviours like stimming. I would also not have to deal with people disbelieving the fact that I am autistic and denying my identity.
Stimming seems to be a universal autistic trait. I have not heard of a single autistic person who does not stim. This makes it a much better sign of autism than any of the things that are commonly thought of as features of autism. I suspect that if awareness of stimming and its importance to autistic people increased, then more autistic people would realise (or have someone else realise) that they are autistic, and more autistic people would be believed when they say that they are autistic.
Finally, there are probably some autistic people who know they are autistic but who don’t know what stimming is. The word is rarely used outside of autistic circles, and if an autistic person didn’t know many other autistic people or follow any autistic people’s blogs/social media, then they might never come across it. This is a shame, because not having a word for something that is such an important part of your life makes it difficult to understand yourself.
Stimming is anything a person does to provide themselves with some kind of stimulation. Autistic people tend to stim a lot, and often in unusual ways. Stimming plays a number of roles in autistic people’s lives, and these can be grouped into three main categories: sensory seeking, expression and self-regulation. While everyone stims, it is important to recognise it as an autistic trait and an important part of autistic people’s lives. An increased awareness of stimming within society would be likely to increase rates of autism diagnosis and would also mean autistic people would be better understood, both by themselves and others.
If you want to learn more about self-injurious stimming and what can be done about it, I recommend Kirsten Lindsmith’s blog post: The Dark Side of the Stim: Self-injury and Destructive Habits.