When was the last time you caught yourself tapping your feet, shaking your leg, or twirling your hair? Welcome to the world of stimming.
The word stim refers to self-stimulation, and while it is commonly associated with an autism diagnosis, we all do it. I can’t sit at my desk without partaking in the infamous leg-bounce. When my hair is down, I run my fingers through it an unreasonable amount of times. When I’m driving, I’m almost always tapping my thumbs on the steering wheel. You get the point. These habitual habits are my form of stimming, which I imagine you can relate to in one way or another.
When it comes to children and adults on the spectrum, stimming is often a way to counteract an overwhelming sensory environment, or to help alleviate high levels of anxiety. According to Cynthia Kim, author of I Think I Might Be Autistic: A Guide to Autism Spectrum Disorder Diagnosis and Self-Discovery,
Stimming happens for many reasons. I stim when I’m anxious. I stim when I’m thinking. I stim when my senses are overloaded. I stim when I’m happy. Stimming is a way of regulating my body and mind. It calms me when I’m over-stimulated and reconnects me with myself when I’m under-stimulated. Often I don’t even notice that I’m doing it.
For people with autism, stimming serves a positive purpose, however, since it is commonly an outward expression of anxiety, it tends to be perceived in a negative way. By that, I mean, stimming is typically what draws the stares, perplexed facial expressions, or bullying on the playground.
The most common forms of autistic stimming can be categorized in three ways:
- Hand stimming, including hand flapping, finger waving, and/or finger wiggling
- Body stimming, including rocking/swaying side to side, spinning, and head bobbing
- Vocal stimming, including groaning, screeching, or various forms of echolalia, meaning unsolicited repetition of vocalizations
While these are the most well-known forms of self-stimulation, autism stimming is extremely diverse and often unique to the individual. Other less common types of stimming include, but are not limited to: staring, repetitive blinking, spinning objects, rubbing textured surfaces, licking or chewing, tapping feet or fingers, squeezing hands into a fist, and other repetitive activities.
Finley’s most frequent forms of self-stimulation are rocking, hand flapping and finger wiggling, spinning objects (he loves fidget spinners and car wheels), rubbing/scratching textured surfaces, water related activities, and biting/chewing. We’re working on him not biting things he shouldn’t bite, like people, but otherwise, we have no issue with him stimming when and where he wants, and you shouldn’t either.
Stimming is normal. We all do it, but for kids with autism, they can do it in an ’embarrassing’ way. I hate to even use the word embarrassing, because it’s not something Finn should be ashamed of and it’s certainly not something Paul and I are bothered by, but unfortunately, the irregularity of autistic stimming seen in public has negatively stigmatized it.
As such, many parents ask the question: How do I stop my child from stimming?
The answer is, you don’t. For one, it’s unachievable. Stimming serves a very important and necessary purpose for people with autism, so putting a stop to it is just plain impossible. Secondly, it’s cruel. Telling your child to stop stimming is like telling yourself to never sneeze, or scratch an itch, but on a grander scale. According to Kirsten Lindsmith in her blog Stimming 101, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Stim,
Attempts at preventing stimming teach an autistic child that an essential trait of her person, an uncontrollable, essential, natural inclination, is wrong, and needs to be stopped at all costs.
The more people understand about autism and other disorders alike, the less children and adults diagnosed will be negatively judged as different, or less capable. Finley is smart, goofy, sensitive, sweet, and just like an average toddler in most ways. He sees the world a little differently and has unique ways to regulate his anxieties and senses, but he is far from embarrassing. Let him stim and don’t be afraid to ask us questions if something seems out of your ordinary.