Stimming: What autistic people do to feel calmer

Generic photo of boy threading string through his hands

There is a slang word that people in the autism community use to describe the noises and movements they sometimes make to feel calmer. It also covers habits such as nail-biting.

What is this word?

It's stimming, short for the medical term self-stimulatory behaviours - a real mouthful.

Stimming might be rocking, head banging, repeatedly feeling textures or squealing. You'll probably have seen this in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) but not really wanted to ask about it.

It is a term used widely in the ASD community.

Why do people with autism stim?

There are many reasons. The world-renowned animal behaviourist Temple Grandin is on the spectrum and says most people stim simply because it feels good.

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In Autism Digest in 2011, she said dribbling sand through her fingers was a feeling that used to calm her. Referring to her own childhood experiences, she said that stimming "may counteract an overwhelming sensory environment, or alleviate the high levels of internal anxiety these kids typically feel every day". A real life example is that it could stop sounds hurting your ears.

As an adult, Grandin seems to control the sensory overload a little better but says some people need to stim to "refocus and realign their systems".

UK campaigner Robyn Steward says she relaxes her wrists and lets her hands flap up and down when she's happy or anxious. A public speaker with autism, Stewart thinks that for her, it's the rhythmic nature of stimming that does the trick. "When babies don't sleep well, you put them in the car, in their car seat, and you drive about. They are lulled to sleep by the sound and the movement because they feel safe." The repetitive sound, she says, is a good example of a stim outside of the context of autism.

So, in short, stimming is often done to block unwanted sounds or visuals through distraction, or to bring focus. Not all noises and movement are stims - these have a purpose. Tics, for instance, are purposeless.

Is it just people on the autism spectrum who stim?
Gordon Brown's hands with chewing fingernails Bitten nails

No. Neurotypicals, or people without autism (you, maybe?), also self-stimulate; nail biting, hair twirling and foot tapping all count as stims.

NTs, as they're known for short, can usually control their stims and tend to do ones that are considered more acceptable in public than those done by people with autism.

There are blogs and web forums where people on the spectrum discuss stimming, compare stims and discuss public reactions.

Should stimming be stopped?

Welcome to Controversyville, come in, take a seat.

"Quiet hands" is a gentle request you might hear from teachers or parents in the US encouraging children to stop stimming. The consensus between autism experts now seems to favour not intervening unless it's causing harm, no matter that it may look a bit different or cause others to feel uncomfortable.

On the Talk About Autism forum, a contributor called Claire (who is on the spectrum herself), writes: "[Stopping stims is] a bit like 'teaching' someone who is blind not to feel things in a room to find out where they are because we don't like them putting their arms and hands out to do so.

"It has a purpose. Stopping it in order to make others feel better seems bizarre to me."

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  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    One of my best friends at school did this, flapping his hands a lot whenever he was happy. Back then (70's) no-one had heard of autism, and so no-one (teachers or pupils) ever perceived it as a problem. It harmed no-one, was just something we accepted, and no-one felt awkward or embarrassed, and no teacher ever asked him to stop. To us, it was just who he was.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    i'm 19 years old and on the autistic spectrum myself, i've never known the name for these types of actions before till now. I stim quite a lot sometimes (this combined with my tics due totourettes can be interesting), usually when i'm under stress or in a busy environment

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    My son has autism and is in mainstream primary. He stims a lot and has done so for about 5 years. We've always let him get on with it but I now worry that he spends too much time stimming instead of developing much needed skills. I have begun to use diversion tactics to engage him in what's going on around him. Am I doing the right thing?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    What an interesting article. I'm a 'normal' (NT) person and now I know that I also stim! I'm an incessant foot tapper/leg jiggler and I often play with my septum to provide distraction and comfort, usually when I'm really concentrating on something. Nobody notices except my missus who knows that I do it. :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Oh, so that's what I am doing with my set of Greek 'worry beads'... I reach for them whenever being kept waiting or otherwise annoyed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Attempts to stop stimming appear to be an effort to control things that Neuro-typical people aren't comfortable with in their immediate surroundings and smacks of 'lets put the wheelchairs over in the corner'.

    Not surprised that the US approach is to make people conform - much of that society follows the 'everything looks like a nail when you are a hammer' strain of thinking

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    If they aren't harming themselves or anyone else, causing disruption or being a danger or a nuisance, why does it matter what anyone does or the reason they do it?

    Everyone has their quirks. Even "normal" people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Let's celebrate our differences. Anyone who thinks these behaviours are 'wrong' or need to be 'corrected' are are contributing to the stigmatising and self loathing of disabled people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Aha, welcome to an important part of our world! Maybe next time you see someone moving a bit oddly you won't be so quick to judge. There is a gloriousness to aspects of autism, it's definitely not all doom and gloom :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    My son constantly 'clicks' his fingers . . . . . .and he isn't on the Autism spectrum. . . . . . .or is he?. . . . . . . .It's not just people on the AS that do 'habitual' things, so please don't make a meal of it and draw peoples attention to something that really doesn't matter to anyone. We are what we are and it would be nice if we stopped putting people into categories

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Lots of neuro-typicals stim - I certainly do, repeatedly flexing my hand and clenching my fist when stressed. NTs just learn to read reactions, and censor themselves accordingly.
    Clinicians and teachers shoul look at the whole (autistic) person - is the calming affect helping an individual more than the social dismay is increasing their problems - and go from there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    To the critics who demand conformity: have you never considered how we find the world? Noisy, inconsistent and stressful as a result. Add the real discrimination we face (most autists are unemployed because job interviews do not allow us to shine). Is it any wonder we try self-calming measures. The alternative is meltdown. You do not want that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    As the article points out, NTs stim too. So just the mere fact that someone stims, does not mean they're on the autistic spectrum.

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    Comment number 4.

    LS - You don't understand and that's understandable. The "stim" is something that's learned early, well before the child, parents or anyone has spotted what's happening. Many of us were never diagnosed until later in life. It's a coping mechanism that pretty much makes what you'd call normal life bearable. What we all need is to educate people about autism and help all affected by this

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I wouldn't take what this article says as a diagnosis on stims for any individual kid. Seek professional advice if you're unsure, in order to identify why the stims are happening. While some may be great for self-calming (and yes we can try and teach other self-calming strategies that do the trick, but aren't barriers towards social success), others might be harmful or indicative of other needs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    It doesn't sound as though the author wanted the world to change for her but perhaps become more accepting of what looks odd to non autistic people. I don't know what autistic people need but I suspect being likened to a flapping chicken isn't high on their list of needs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    The comparison of autism to blindness is mistaken. Stims may help autistic feel better but they can be a distraction to others in social situations. Autistic people usually need to be taught to adapt to social situations. Expecting the world to change for them is impractical. Stims needn't be suppressed, but rather redirected. Chewing gum is more acceptable than flapping around like a chicken.


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