Demystifying Stimming Behaviors in Autistic Children

The words humans use to talk about ourselves are always changing. So if you find yourself wondering, “what IS stimming, exactly?” you are not alone!

Stimming is just short for “stimulating” in a neurodivergent context. 

We use stimming behaviors to create and control sensory input, or “self-stimulate.” Stimming is an act of both self-regulation and expression. The physical sensations actually soothe our nervous systems, and the movements and sounds can even be used for communication.

Wanna know why and how?
Let’s take a look.

What does stimming behavior look like?

Some stereotypical autistic stims are rocking, hand-flapping, and (often scripted) vocalization. However, there is no limit to what stimming can look or feel like because it is a highly individual experience. People may pace, spin, tap, stroke, gaze, sniff, sing, hum, jump, or use any other repetitive action to stimulate one or more of their senses.

Stimming involves any of the five senses, as well as vestibular and vocal sensations. This means stimming behaviors can be:

-Visual

-Auditory

-Vocal (auditory and tactile)

-Tactile (touch)

-Oral (taste and tactile)

-Olfactory (smell)

-Vestibular (motion and balance)

How to Control Stimming in Autistic Children

Stimming can look bizarre, interrupt quiet environments, or simply be annoying.

So, how do you stop or decrease stimming behaviors?

Often, you can work with an autistic person to come up with replacement stims for behaviors that are too disruptive, but trying to suppress stimming completely will actually cause more problems.

Autistic people need to stim to self-regulate. 

If a stimming behavior is harmful to the self or others (such as head-banging, biting, squeezing too hard, etc) then beyond redirecting the stim, you will need to look at the underlying stressors causing the destructive behavior.

Our autistic educators here at AuEdu are happy to help you work through our courses to get personalized insight for your unique child and their needs. The key to understanding (and perhaps adjusting) stimming behavior is knowing why we do it, and how it affects us.

Why do Autistic people stim?

Most humans use self-stimulating behaviors- not just autistic and neurodivergent people. If you click your pen when you’re bored, bounce your leg when you are anxious, or sing when you are happy, you are doing a form of stimming!

Stimming in response to our Environment and Emotions

One major aspect of autism is a difference in sensory perception, so many of us are easily over- or under-stimulated by our environment; this is sometimes physically painful.

Many neurodivergent people also feel very intense emotions, which can be just as overwhelming and/or physically painful.

Environmental factors like:

  • loud music
  • overlapping conversations
  • fluorescent or flashing lights
  • crowded spaces
  • clutter/disorganization

can raise our heart rate and cortisol level.

Our bodies physically need to process this energy. Stimming is a way to output energy, and movement helps to rebalance the chemicals in our brains.

Equally challenging for us is too little environmental enrichment.

When lacking in stimulation, neurodivergent people tend to create sensations to focus on. Far from distracting, this actually helps us remain present in our surroundings- even if that seems counterintuitive from a neurotypical standpoint.

Intense emotions like:

  • joy
  • anticipation
  • fear
  • surprise
  • anger
  • rejection

and more, arouse our nervous systems.

So while you might think of screaming and stamping feet when frustrated and overwhelmed, we are equally likely to squeal and wave our arms when happy or excited.

What to do about stimming

Depending on the situation, the stim can be voluntary or involuntary, conscious or unconscious (or somewhere in between). So, autistic people might not be aware of what we’re doing, and can try to stop when asked… but controlling the action could cause even more stress.

It is important to communicate with people who stim to identify the underlying causes or environmental factors that need to be addressed. 

Of course, communication can be challenging for the best of us- and even more so with children! That’s why we spend an entire unit in our Empowering Autism Course learning about autistic communication, including non-verbal communication.

Types of Stimming

It would be impossible to make a comprehensive list of stims because stimming is any self-soothing sensation. In this article, we break it down into some categories with examples of each type of stim. 

Visual Stimming

Overwhelming visual input (anything messy or busy) is very stressful. Focusing the gaze on a familiar and constant motion helps us tune out the background “noise.” We might also seek intricate visual stimulation to combat boredom.

Examples of Visual Stimming: 

-Gazing at a fan or flame

-Focusing in on something small, like a bug

-Blinking

-Playing with a kaleidoscope, top, rubix cube

-Reading a book

-Movie or game on electronic screens

-Waving object in front of face

-Staring off into space

Visual stimming is one of the easiest and quietest ways to stim.

Auditory Stimming

Rewatching familiar movies or listening to favorite songs is very reassuring for autistic people because these things are predictable- they sound the same every time. 

Examples of Auditory Stimming:

-rewatching media

-listening to music

-white noise

-ASMR

-water fountain

-drumming, tapping, banging

-singing, talking, humming

-covering/rubbing ears

The best way to hear a predictable sound (or drown out an unpleasant sound!) is to make it yourself! This is part of what makes vocal stimming so effective.

Vocal Stimming

Vocalizing produces a combination of sensations:

  • self-controlled auditory input
  • tactile oral sensations (the lips, the teeth, the tip of the tongue!)
  • and vibrational sensations in the head, throat and chest. 

Examples of Vocal Stimming:

-talking

-humming

-singing

-screaming/squealing

-groaning/moaning

-animal sounds

A common autistic vocal stim is echolalia, which is simply repeating a sound, word, or phrase that feels or sounds good. We tend to echo things which are funny, surprising, startling, or maybe don’t immediately trigger another verbal response.

Tactile Stimming

Tactile sensations have to do with touch! You might be familiar with tactile stim toys like fidget spinners or fidget cubes, but remember there is no limit to stimming behaviors. Fidgeting releases excess energy which actually helps us sit or stand in one place and stay focused.

Examples of Tactile Stimming:

-fidgeting with  jewelry

-plucking or rubbing clothing 

-swaddling in a security blanket  

-using a weighted blanket

-using tight clothing for calming pressure

-stroking or snuggling a stuffed animal

-picking at skin, nails, face

-twirling hair

-petting a dog or other animal

-even another human! 

And yes, sex and masturbation count as tactile stims. It is important to understand and teach themes like consent and appropriate time/place for exploring sexual sensations- as well as boundaries and personal space whenever a stim affects other humans.

Oral Stimming

Oral just has to do with the mouth, so oral stimming is a combination of the tactile and tasting (gustatory) sensations. Just like other stimming behaviors, oral stimming is satisfying and grounding.

Examples of Oral Stimming: 

-chewing or biting (toys, fingers, gum)

-snacks (predictable tastes)

-whistling (also auditory)

-kissing (the air, self, others)

-clicking tongue (auditory)

-licking (lips or objects)

-blowing raspberries

-sucking (thumb, candy, sleeve)

Autistic people with highly heightened senses of taste and smell tend to show a strong preference for “same food” (and drink) because the taste and texture are predictable and safe.

Olfactory Stimming

Our sense of smell is tied very deeply to emotions and memories. Ever come home from a trip and revel in the familiar scent of your own bedsheets? 

Examples of Stimming with Smell: 

-sniffing hands or clothing

-candle, incense, diffuser

-burying face in pillow, parent, pet

-cooking

-gardening or playing in dirt

-specific fabric softener or detergent

Aromatherapy is a very old method of mood regulation: lavender for relaxation, mint and citrus for energy, etc.

Vestibular Stimming

Vestibular sensations are picked up in our inner ears, and create our sense of motion and balance. A vestibular stim can be any physical action that changes the position, direction, or movement of the person’s head.

Examples of Vestibular Stimming:

-rocking and swaying

-spinning

-jumping and bouncing

-pacing or running

-climbing or swinging

-dance and gymnastics

-nodding or shaking head

-banging head

Most children require gross motor outlets to feel regulated, and this is especially true for neurodivergent children. Regular exercise with lots of sensory stimulation may reduce the need for stimming in other contexts.

Stimming in Autistic Babies and Toddlers

Head-banging is perhaps one of the most alarming stim behaviors, so here is a resource about causes and solutions. Autistic babies may start banging their heads as early as six months old, and start to outgrow it around three to four years old. You can also learn about the biochemical factors at play in the brains and bodies of autistic children.

Babies explore the world with their mouths! A pacifier is a classic stim. Autistic oral stimming may appear compulsive, repetitive, and generally in the context of self-soothing, rather than mere curiosity or entertainment.

“Lining up toys” is frequently listed as a sign of autism, and often described as “failing to engage in pretend play.” However, if you view this behavior through the lens of stimming, you can see how lining up objects is organized visual stimulation

Instead of considering this a deficit, you could choose to work on skills like counting and categories. Remember that your autistic child may see patterns that you don’t!

Stimming in Autistic Children and Teens

Oral stimming should change as children develop, and older autistic kids might chew on their nails, sleeves, pens, etc. Chewable jewelry is a great solution for redirecting harmful oral stimming to an appropriate outlet.

Hopefully they will find alternative solutions to banging their heads, and may rock or pace as a vestibular stim. Keep an eye out for other self-injurious behaviors starting to develop instead, as this could be a sign of unidentified pain.

Contrary to popular belief, autistic people can be very creative and imaginative! Autistic children and teens could start to channel visual stimming through activities like drawing and painting or knitting and crochet (also very tactile!)

Allowing autistic children to doodle in the margins at school helps them stay focused on their work and the teacher’s voice. 

Teens also have access to a wider variety of media and electronics, and it is highly probable that an autistic teen will make excellent use of media players and earbuds or headphones to manage their auditory input.

In Conclusion

What? Stimming includes an endless variety of behaviors used to self-stimulate our senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Vocal and oral stims combine some of these. Less commonly known is our vestibular sense, relating to motion and balance

Why? Autistic children use stimming behaviors to self-soothe. Many autistic people have heightened or dulled sensory processing systems. Unfortunately, environmental sensations are often out of our control: especially for children. Seeking or creating repetitive sensations (consciously or unconsciously) gives us autonomous sensory input that feels good.

How? Stimming is also a form of self expression and a way to release energy, including positive energy due to excitement or joy. Hand-flapping, rocking, bouncing, etc are critical tools in an autistic person’s toolbox for regulating their nervous system and expressing themselves.

As such, stimming should not be discouraged unless the behavior is actively harmful.

Lots of things like doodling, fidgeting, or lining up toys, while viewed negatively through a neurotypical lens, are actually extremely helpful for meeting the sensory needs of neurodivergent children.

More information about autistic sensory systems is available in our Sensory E-Book

Let us help you:

✅Learn about autistic sensory issues

✅Accommodate sensory needs

✅Create positive sensory experiences

✅Help your autistic child THRIVE!

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