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 37.

    People who are 'NT' can modify their behaviour because they have the skills and awareness to do so. Those who are Autistic or Asperger's, cannot do this. They cannot tolerate the sensory stimulation that threatens to overload them in the same manner that a 'NT' can.
    If stimming means that they can process all of this information instead of a serious meltdown then let them do it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    15. Tramp

    My mainstream primary. He stims a lot .

    I spent many years teaching autistic children. When teaching one to one, students were asked to put their hands in their laps, we then put ours above to reduce stimming. From experience this improved concentration & learning for that session. So just carry on with what you're doing & if it works for you, fine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    @33 My son has autism and is also in a wheelchair. Some people are clearly uncomfortable seeing him in his wheelchair - maybe I should make him get out and walk to make those people feel more comfortable? If my son needs to stim then so be it - if people don't like it that's their problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Subtle movements people should cope with, like moving hands of feet. If I'm in a meeting and I had to sit completely still, all my energy would have to go on concentrating not to move and there would be none left on concentrate on the task. I agree that excessive movement could too distracting to others, but a bit of give and take on both side, should make it not that much of a problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    I believe it is important to try not to do things that make others uncomfortable just because it feels good. We all need to get along with each other and what we do in public and what we do in private are two different things. Is telling everyone on the spectrum that it is OK to stim around others really in their best interest?

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Matt k@26,...As Graham Chapmens doctor character, in the meaning of life, replied to the new mothers Question, "Is it a boy or a girl,....."Its a little soon to be imposing roles on it, isn't it?".

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    @25 that sounds much dirtier than you meant to make it. also @26 not exactly theres the spectrum of really extreme to barely noticable like me and then theres people who are borderline to being on the spectrum and people that only exhibit slight autistic tendencies

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    @Billy 27. Sorry to hear that, sadly it's very common. Many are happy to judge but don't make the effort to even read a few leaflets or Google ASD to pick up some info.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    wow, i don't have autism or any medical conditions that i am aware of. But i do stim a lot myself. nail biting and the constant foot tapping with the leg jiggling about. also thinking about it, i would say that most of my friends do some sort of stim. making people stop these for what ever reason is just utter madness..

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    i have aspergers syndrome putting me on the lowest form of the autistic spectrum and i do a lot of these i bite my nails i tap ALOT so much so it gets on peoples nerves as does me clicking my fingers which i do constantly i also stim by whistling and humming.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    @JaneyK72 - if your son makes other people uncomfortable then shame on them.
    We have just returned from a holiday after 1 night because my 4 year old wouldn't stop screaming to go home. Since then 2 relatives have made suggestions that clearly show they do not understand at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Everyone is on the spectrum, thats why it's called a spectrum as it ranges from the everday to the extreme. That does not automaticly make you what could be called "autistic" or even "apsergers". It's a hugely abused term these days just like dyslexia and dyspraxia used to be - mostly so middle class parents could con the SEN system for less than bright kids - Think before you get your kid a label

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    I'm stimming as I type.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    To 1, LS. " Autistic people usually need to be taught to adapt to social situations. Expecting the world to change for them is impractical." And you are the one supposed to have the better "social skills" and "emotional empathy"? Wow.
    Why not step into our world a bit, rather than insisting on dragging us into yours. You developing your range of social tolerance would be "more acceptable."

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Most people have this kind of behaviour, even those in the mainstream. it's the sort of thing professional poker players look for in opponents, the "Tells" as it's known, where a player might unconsciously rub his chin or rearrange his cards with a good hand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    The more I read about autism, the more I wonder if, if I'd been born later, if I would have been diagnosed as on the spectrum (probably the lower end). I'd never heard the term skimming, but I do it constantly. I find it pretty much impossible to sit still, my ankle is always turning, and I will fiddle with whatever happens to be near by as being still feels really uncomfortable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Tapping a foot, clicking a pen, drumming one's fingers...

    Is anyone 'NT'?

    Importantly, the S in ASD stands for Spectrum. It's not black and white (person A has autism, person B doesn't). Maybe we're all on the spectrum somewhere. (One theory suggests a spectrum from Autism to Schizophrenia with 'NTs' squeezed somewhere between).

    Everyone is different, it's how we respond that's important.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    "There are many reasons." Yes, yes, yes. The individual first, before forcing them into a preformed "model" or "theory", please.

    "It has a purpose. Stopping it in order to make others feel better seems bizarre to me." Absolutely.
    See also insistence on making eye-contact, etc.
    Making us come out of our comfort zones so other people can stay in theirs.
    Conformity as tyranny?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    My 8yo son is on the spectrum and stims. (Flaps/spins/hums) when he is stressed, upset and when he's excited. He can't help it. it's what he does. I can't explain how it feels when people look at him like he's an alien or roll their eyes at me like I'm a bad mother and I dread the day he notices these negative reactions. People need to stop judging things they clearly do not understand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I'm 19 and on the autistuic spectrum myself. This is the first time i've heard this terminology, but it makes sense and fits well with the actions themselves. I stim quite alot when stessed, it can be anything from wringing my hands, to fiddling with whatever i can reach first (this annoys people sometimes lol). Stimming is an essential part of staying calm sometimes and should not be stopped.


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