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 57.

    "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"
    If its only a distraction then what is the problem. If it isn't actually disruptive then we can continue with our distracting behavior and they can react with theirs. If they demanded we change our behavior how would we react?

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Matt K 51 - Really? (Nuly Matt K is not Matt).
    Non ASD folk 'visit' secure hospitals too.

    There are indeed 'lead-swingers' (e.g. I've watched parents stuff sweets into kids mouths so they 'perform' in clinics and then they get a diagnosis to increase benefits...). You say that all sufferers are different, but then expect them to be able to cope as you do? Somethings not quite right....

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    It seems that many people on the autistic spectrum cannot help stimming in public, although some posters here seem to be suggesting that it is undesirable to even try to stop?

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    My name is Alex Lowery and I have autism. I also find that Stimming is really important for me. I agree that stopping someone from Stimming is a bit like stopping a blind person from feeling around. I do Public Speaking on the subject of autism. I've got a website which can be viewd here -
    You can see my article about stimming -

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Matt K-Having read all the comments so far, it strikes me that you simply have no understanding of the 'world' in which AS folk operate. That in itself is fine, as your comments openly demonstrate your ignorance of the area, but what is sad is that you also display a trait that ALL folk encounter daily; that of people lacking the basic social skills to 'consider' that others may think differently.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    What exactly am I fibbing about Matt? Just because YOU can keep a grip on it doesn't mean that everyone else with aspergers can. I'm also intrigued that you mentioned your girlfriends brother much earlier but not your own condition ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    I have a family member with a severe ASD so stop fibbing Nuly. I am an apsergers sufferer myself and I can keep a grip on it, people who treat even the mildest ASD as an excuse to inflict it on others pee me off no end. Some autistics injure people, if they keep doing it they put them in secure hospitals, are you claiming all ASD's are the same? Because they are not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    @Matt K 46. As a parent of two children with autism I am fully aware that it is not a get out of jail free card and never has been. I am well aware that they will reach the age of criminal responsibility and the safety and well being of others comes well before their disability and I raise them accordingly. This article is about stimming and no one ever went to jail for stimming.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Stimming!! I have a 18 year old profoundly Autistic son
    (Not Aspergers or High Functioning) who is mute(Not selective). My son has always been a 'Hand-Flapper', Ear-Coverer, Head-banger, hand-biter etc, etc. I have never heard of the 'term' stimming! despite my son attending an SLD school since five years of age and requiring 2:1 care/support 24/7(for the rest of his life). I am now enlightend!

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    @Matt K IQ *IS* the issue when differentiating between Aspergers and classic autism. Aspergers can make learning difficult and the medics CAN assess a severely autistics IQ. You're punching well above your weight here with people that know a lot more than having a girlfriends brother with autism. Try parenting some children with the condition or having the condition yourself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    My girlfriends little brother is autistic and at times his behaviour is very embarassing for other people such as in restaurants where he will totally disregard other people and often flap his arms about, roll his head from side to side and in worst cases, fits of screaming or sporadic shouting. He can't help it, but I can understand other peoples frustrations when they just want a meal in peace.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Nuly - Autism in itself becomes the learning disabilty if it is severe enough. IQ is not the issue, you can't test a severely autistic persons IQ in the first place, the two go hand in hand like space and time. Someone with aspergers could range from 70 to much higher but that does not mean they can not control some behaviours. ASD is not a get out of jail free card. Never has been.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.


    You assume ASD sufferers can CHOOSE to stop and wilfully enforce behaviours on others. It is their coping mechanism and is not a choice, but an instinctual reaction to deal with sensory overload.
    Why do people find this so hard to accept? And what gives people the right to judge ASD sufferers who can successfully work, that they CAN control stimming? How do you know? Don't assume you know.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Matt K @39. Aspergers syndrome is not a lesser form of autism it is simply a name that has been given to people who have autism without a learning disability. Somebody with the diagnosis of high functioning autism or aspergers has no less autism than someone with a diagnosis of autism, they just have an IQ over 70 (

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    We all overlook idiosyncracies all the time - it cannot be that much of a hardship to ignore stimming. I'm not sure I know anyone who doesn't have a "am I alive because this is stressful reaction". It seems a lot of effort for the stimmer versus the rest of us to cope - surely the point of society is the "stronger" accomodate those who are "weaker" or have I missed that somewhere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    It's not about intolerance it's about compromise. I try my very best not to force my behaviours on others if it makes them uncomfortable, I expect this in return, it's not a one sided arangement. If it's one sided then then that becomes discrimination or harrasment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    To those who say that our behaviours make them uncomfortable, consider the reverse. Your behaviours make us uncomfortable, particularly this obsession NTs have with making eye contact and placing a moral stance on the matter (when we find it extremely distracting)! By saying that we have to conform to your standards you say that we have no rights in the matter. Intolerance rules.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    I've experienced this to the point of self-harm it isn't always harmless (but I live in one of the NHS trusts where autism spectrum disorders are cured by magic when you reach 18 so I'm obviously just fine)

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I would have to challange the idea that people who may be at the lower end of the sepctrum/aspergers are incapable of not stimming. If you are functional and you are interacting with others possibly in the work place that means being able to sit still and not annoy other people. If you can't then you are well past the apsergers end of the spectrum IMHO or using it as an excuse to do as you like.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Both of my ASD children stim, but I have found as my oldest has got older she stims less, or at least, less obviously than she used to do, so maybe as my son gets older he will do the same. In the meantime, I think its fine, because neither display self-harming behaviours, which is a whole new ballgame. Stimming calms my kids, it's something they can control in a world that can be very confusing.


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