Autistic Stimming Behaviors

Autistic Stimming Behaviors: what families need to know

Autistic Stimming Behaviors

Stimming behaviors are common in autistic people. Parents and families have many questions when it comes to their autistic kid and stimming:

  • Why does my kid stim?
  • Is stimming bad? Should I stop or redirect stimming?
  • My kid hurts themself when they stim, how can I help them?

This post is about autistic stimming behaviors and lists types of stims. This knowledge can help you better understand your individual kid so you can get answers to questions like the one above.

First, we’re going to address a common misconception that many people have about autistic stimming.

There’s a hypothesis that repetitive stimming behaviors show “disorganized nervous systems,”  and say that stimming is used to block out the world. People who believe this to be true might say to stop stimming. 

While the above CAN be true, it isn’t ALWAYS true. Autistic people stim primarily to self-soothe.

Another idea is that some stimming behaviors that aren’t “normal” in society, such as rocking or flapping your hands, should be controlled so that other people can feel more comfortable. 

We absolutely disagree with this approach. All stimming that isn’t harming oneself or others should be freely allowed and encouraged.

Why do we feel this way? Here’s why:

Reasons why autistic people stim: it’s healthy! 

  • They feel good
  • Calm anxiety
  • Maintain body awareness, create a focus point for physical sensation
  • Focus concentration
  • Soothe sensory overload
  • Soothe strong emotions like stress, nervous, sadness, frustration, anger

Now that we know WHY kids stim, it informs our perspective about what we should do about it.

What are stimming behaviors?

Stimming behaviors are done repeatedly, and often, and usually for the purposes of calming and soothing. 

According to the DSM-5 these are the “repetitive and restrictive” behaviors that make up part of the diagnostic criteria for autism.

Types of Stimming Behaviors

Auditory Stimming

This can include music, sounds, videos, or other ways to make noise. For some, auditory stimming can seem beautiful…but to others, it can seem chaotic.

Oral Stimming

This almost always manifests as chewing on things like clothes, hair, fingers, gum, or anything they can get their hands on.

Tactile Stimming

Stimming this way involves touching things or doing things with your hands.

Vestibular Stimming

Moving around, jumping, spinning, running, and doing other things with your body are ways to do vestibular stimming.

Visual Stimming

Visual senses are stimulated by looking at patterns, artwork, videos, glitter, or other such visual aids.

Vocal / Verbal Stimming

This stimming includes saying words or phrases, singing, repeating things, laughing, yelling/shrieking, making noises, and any number of other loud things with the vocal cords.

List of Stims

This list is by no means complete! All of these, when done in repeatedly and especially in order to soothe or calm oneself, are stimming behaviors.

  • Arranging and rearranging objects like toys
  • Biting hair, pen caps, finger nails
  • Blinking repetitively, quickly, really hard
  • Blowing raspberries, blowing lips
  • Bouncing
  • Buttoning and unbutton, snapping and unsnapping
  • Chanting
  • Clearing throat
  • Clapping
  • Clasping hands
  • Clenching muscles, jaw, buttcheeks
  • Cracking knuckles
  • Dancing, wiggling and writhing around
  • Drummings fingers, hands on thighs
  • Exercising like running, weight lifting, stretching (usually in older children)
  • Eye tracking, peering from the corners of the eyes
  • Feeling textures such as fur, blankets, fuzzy things, shiny things, smooth things
  • Fidgeting with hands, objects, clothing
  • Finger flicking
  • Flossing
  • Gulping
  • Hand flapping
  • Hitting / slapping self in head or on hands
  • Humming
  • Jumping
  • Laughing
  • Licking – self, other people, objects
  • Licking lips
  • Lining up objects very frequently, over and over
  • Listening to the same sound or song over and over again
  • Mirror play: looking into them, pressing hands on them
  • Pacing
  • Playing multiple songs or videos at once
  • Puffing out cheeks
  • Pressing on / pulling on / covering ears, nose, eyes, mouth, stomach, belly button
  • Pulling hair, pulling out hair (on head or other parts of body)
  • Rearranging things, objects
  • Reciting facts, details, dates, names, places, sometimes over and over
  • Repeating words or phrases, sometimes over and over
  • Ripping paper or fabric
  • Rocking the whole body
  • Rubbing hands together
  • Rubbing objects, people, self, textures
  • Scratching fingernails on textures, scratching skin
  • Sighing
  • Shaking whole body or specific body parts
  • Shivering
  • Shuffling cards
  • Skin rubbing
  • Skipping
  • Sniffing people, sniffing animals, sniffing objects
  • Spinning
  • Staring or gazing at objects, such as ceiling fans or lights
  • Tapping toes
  • Tapping on the body, chest, abdomen
  • Throwing things (such as in sports or throwing mom’s favorite knick-knack across the room)
  • Tilting the head from side to side
  • Turning lights on and off while looking at them
  • Twirling hair
  • Twirling around in circles
  • Walking on tiptoes
  • Watching videos, especially the same video or clip over and over
  • Whistling
  • Wringing hands
  • “Zoning out” staring at things, such as rotating objects, fans

Harmful stimming behaviors

  • Biting
  • Excessive rubbing or scratching skin
  • Head banging
  • Picking scabs and sores
  • Punching 
  • Swallowing things

RED FLAG: eating non-food items like paint, this could be signs of pica

While we support the full expression of stimming behaviors, dangerous or harmful behaviors should absolutely be changed.

There are many opinions on how to help kids who stim in this way. Current research and the lived experiences of autistic people overwhelmingly favor non-ABA approaches to solving the need to stim in this way.

Read more below for more information about how AuEdu can support you as you help your kid who struggles with these behaviors.

My kid stims. Does that mean they’re autistic?

Pretty much all autistic people stim. However, stimming alone doesn’t mean you’re autistic.

Generally, autistic people stim for specific reasons, frequently, and repeatedly. In contrast, non-autistic people have fewer stims and stim less frequently..

To see if your kid might be autistic, we recommend AuEdu’s Informal Autism Evaluation Checklist. It’s done easily in your home and is meant to give you info to make your next decisions. Check it out. 

Are autism stimming, Asperger’s stimming, and ADHD stimming the same?

Stimming can be related to Asperger’s syndrome (which is not actually a separate condition but simply autism), ADHD, Rett syndrome, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

KNOW THIS: Just because a behavior is repetitive doesn’t mean it’s obsessive-compulsive disorder. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is very real and affects children and adults and we shouldn’t describe stimming or other behaviors as that if they aren’t. OCD behaviors can truly get in someone’s way of living. Here’s a resource on obsessive-compulsive disorder and how it’s similar and different than autism.

Do you need help with stimming behaviors?

Our online Autism 101 For Families class has information about good, bad, and ugly stimming, strategies for family members that truly help kids, and more.

We give families of autistic kids the knowledge and resources to make confident, informed decisions. Get on our email list to know when we’re enrolling next.

Author: Rosemary Bloom

Scientist, artist, Earth child, and a fire breathing dragon. I share photographs of adventure, muse about Spaceship Earth, ponder thoughts deep and small.