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
    +1

    Comment number 77.

    Heck, sometimes we just stim for fun, and why not? Who's it hurting? We feel socially uncomfortable with NTs a lot of the time, so my heart's not bleeding if the occasional NT is a bit baffled by what we might do, if it's not harming anyone. Unlike NTs who smoke in public places for example and everyone has to breathe the fumes and smell of smoke the rest of the day.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 76.

    @cheerysouthernred - I couldn't agree more. People can dress it up however they like, being critical of somebody because of their disability is bigotry. It would be wrong to deny wheelchair users the right to eat in restaurants, play in parks etc. I don't know how some people can justify their intolerance of other disabilities.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 75.

    Always wonder why the person with the difficulty has to moderate their behaviour to fit in with the NTs. The child with the stim is already feeling under pressure and we now say that we should increase that pressure (by encouraging them to desist) so that the poor NTs can be happier.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 74.

    @Hamster - people I know often refer to 'stims' as 'tics'. Slang and dialect are so varied worldwide that there will be a multitude of names used. I wasn't aware that there was an 'ASD community' dictionary.

    My reason for posting was to mention OT - as my 3 children on the Spectrum and dozens I know found sensory integration strategies helpful (if they were lucky enough to have OT).

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 73.

    @Freddie Roach Ate My Hamster - a tic is not the same as stimming.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 72.

    @33
    "I believe it is important to try not to do things that make others uncomfortable just because it feels good"

    It's not that it feels good, in the way a massage feels good for example. It's that it feels very very uncomfortable not to move and takes a huge amount of concentration. I'd liken it to a smoker trying to resist the craving for a cigarette, although I'd say it's harder to give up.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 71.

    The diagnoses between Kenner's & Asperger's are more complex than IQ, which is why the 'ASD' diagnosis is often used instead. Tics (nobody I know says 'stims') are common across the Spectrum, from non-verbal to high functioning. As common as public intolerance.

    The biggest help I found were Occupational Therapists, who can help with safety, coping & preventative strategies.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 70.

    All societies have norms and if one is unable to meet them through no fault of their own then I would hope most people would be tolerant. However I would say that if an individual on the autistic spectrum can be taught to reduce stimming in public it may enhance their life chances. Maybe not everyone agrees. There is similar debate regarding use of behavioural techniques for young ASD kids

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 69.

    @67.MumHFA
    "Also my son has stims he only does at home, one he at times constantly talks to himself,"

    I do this constantly. I try so hard not to do it in public but sometimes slip up and then get strange looks which is really embarrassing. I found the advent of blue tooth headsets wonderful as then people just started to assume I was a yuppie on the phone, which was far preferable to crazy!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 68.

    As my Profoundly Autistic son is mute/ low functioning(Severe Learning Disabilities) and unable to explain/understand the world around him, I know that his self stimulatory behaviours(hand flapping, head banging, hand biting, noises,Pica etc) are his only means of exploring his surroundings,communicating his happiness, distress, anxiety, fear, anger etc to his caregivers(he is unable to sign).

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 67.

    Also my son has stims he only does at home, one he at times constantly talks to himself, he doesn't do this at school, he stops himself doing many things at school he does at home, what I wish for is for schools and the general public to realise just how much someone with ASD is already coping with before they judge when they can't cope with something that may seem simple. straw camel back!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 66.

    My sons stim (constant tapping on desk) was causing discomfort and distraction to another ASD pupil to the point he acted aggressively because of it, my son wasn't stopped from stimming per se but it was modified (tapping leg not desk), the other boy was asked for more patience, taught to ask him nicely to stop, so they could 'live' together (school base)- tolerance by all is key.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 65.

    if "others feel uncomfortable" because of stimming i would ask who is the one with the issue? - there was a time when two men holding hands made people uncomfortable - we dont stop that, its because of ignorance and judgment. it doesnt need to be stopped - the person who feels uncomfortable need to get a grip. we need more awareness & acceptance not stigma & changing someone with ASDs behaviour.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 64.

    I'm staggered at the judgement & ignorance in comments. I worked in ASD school&only dangerous stims would be stopped. i chew my pen, play with my hair.. the only difference is i modify my behaviour to meet social norms, someone with ASD doesnt, people find someone 'stimming' different to 'normal' so some how its wrong? why should someone stop flapping there hand? no one stops me chewing my pen.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 63.

    @54 Alex Lowery

    Great writing on stimming

    Really interesting stuff one being what I would call "One track minded"
    Personally I have suffered badly from headaches over the last 10 years and apart from the pain, I find I cannot concentrate so well on more than one thing at once.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 62.

    To 55. andgil
    43 MINUTES AGO
    " some posters here seem to be suggesting that it is undesirable to even try to stop?"
    It's hardly to be the top priority, if the stimming helps us stay functional at more important activities. But there are reasons reasons to work on it. Avoiding ridicule and ostracism from those who appear to like denigrating and bullying anyone "different" is, sadly, one of them

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 61.

    @49 Global.

    Have you seen this? It's amazing and inspiring and if you're not already aware of if maybe something you could try with your son.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xsfNrG5Bnw

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 60.

    I work with an Asperger's colleague, and his stimming varies with his emotional state. He jiggles his leg a lot, and frequently runs his hand over his head. He reflexively bounces up and down in his seat.
    When he finds himself anxious, his repetitive behaviours become much more profound. I do not believe he can stop, to argue that he could is arrogant in assuming you know his condition better.

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 59.

    99% of stimming is totally harmless. It is only when it could cause an accident that it should EVER be an issue. My little boy has fallen backwards off chairs before, so we do have to be aware
    Some people are talking as if we were discussing masturbating in the street

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 58.

    Our young son was recently diagnosed with ASD and stims. I find the article interesting because his Dad is a foot-jiggler and his Mum is a nail-biter. I hadn't previously considered either activity as a 'stim' and now wonder how much is our son's own behaviour and how much has been picked up from us.

 

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