Stimming in Motion: 3 ways movement is good for Autistic people

Autistic stimming can have a surprising variety!

Sometimes you might barely notice it, such as when we stare off into space or use deep breathing. Other times, stimming can be very obvious, such as jumping or yelling.

You may have heard that many stimming behaviors are related to our five basic senses of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. Additionally, some types of stimming have more to do with the feelings inside our bodies and feeling where our bodies are in space.

These other sensations are:

  1. Vestibular: balance and motion
  2. Proprioceptive: motion and spatial awareness
  3. Interoceptive: inside of the body

Some of the most commonly known Autistic stimming behaviors, such as hand-flapping, head-banging, rocking, and toe-walking, serve to stimulate these less commonly known sensory systems. 

In order to understand stimming behaviors, you need to understand the feelings they create.

Vestibular Stimming

Do you remember when Olympic gymnast Simone Biles suffered from “the twisties” in 2020? This phenomenon is a disconnect in the vestibular system, which causes a gymnast’s body to lose its sense of balance and position in the air.

Because the vestibular system is located inside our ears, we can self-stimulate this sense by moving our heads

So, vestibular stimming can look like:

  • Nodding or shaking head
  • Rocking back and forth
  • Swinging on a swing
  • Riding a roller coaster
  • Spinning around
  • Jumping
  • Walking or pacing
  • Hanging upside down
  • Banging head

The last time you rode on a roller coaster, do you remember thinking about anything? Or (after the initial anxiety of riding up that first hill!) were you just present in the moment, completely absorbed in the sensations in your body? Roller coasters are a very extreme form of sensory input, but this example can help you imagine the inner, mental sensation of stimming.

Vestibular stimming is very useful for clearing our heads and drowning out overwhelming thoughts, emotions, sounds, etc.

While most of these vestibular stimming behaviors are harmless, head banging can be a cause of concern. Often, self-injurious behavior is an attempt to relieve or distract from another source of pain. Sometimes autistic people will bang their heads due to headaches, ear aches, tooth aches, sinus infections, or even pain in another part of the body.

If your autistic child is banging their head an alarming amount, consult a medical professional and investigate potential sources of pain.

Stimming with Proprioception

Know how they have you touch your nose to see if you are drunk? If you can touch your nose without difficulty, that means you know where your hand is in relation to your face- your sense of proprioception is unimpaired.

Similar to the vestibular sense, proprioception is a sense of where our body is in space. In particular, proprioception helps us sense where different parts of our body are in relation to each other. 

So, examples of stimming with proprioception are:

  • Waving arms
  • Flapping hands
  • Swinging or kicking legs
  • Dancing
  • Swimming
  • Rock climbing
  • Most forms of movement

Autistic hand flapping is a natural response to intense emotions, just like all stimming. Even neurotypical people will sometimes fan themselves with their hands to calm down. Although handflapping might look strange to you, it is healthy and harmless- and will stand out less the more we all do it!

Many of the ways we stim overlap. What I personally notice about hand-flapping is feeling the weight in my wrist. So for me, this stim is also about the sensations inside my body as well as the feeling of my hands moving through space.

Stimming with Interoception

Feeling the interior of our bodies is interoception. It can be the feelings of our muscles, joints and bones as we move around. Interoception also involves the sensations in our organs, like being aware of our stomachs being full, empty, or upset.

Many Autistic people struggle with interoception, which means we have trouble figuring out what signals the body is sending us about our organs, like whether we are hungry or need to use the toilet. 

This also leads to emotional confusion, since emotions are in part physical sensations in the body, like tense muscles, tight chest, tiredness, etc. Without being able to interpret these signals, we experience alexithymia, the inability to identify and understand our emotions.

Interoceptive stimming can be:

  • Squeezing
  • Tensing certain muscles
  • Arching, posturing
  • Making gestures or shapes with hands
  • Scuffing or shuffling feet when walking
  • Walking on tip-toes
  • Biting, clenching jaw
  • Swallowing
  • Blinking
  • Deep breathing
  • Laughing
  • Jumping, banging, or running into things to feel the pressure of impact
  • Singing or yelling to feel the vibrations (see also Vocal Stimming)

Toe-walking can sometimes be a sign of autism in children, as well as posturing and autistic hand gestures. One might walk on their tip-toes to avoid unpleasant textures on the ground, or possibly due to physical problems in their ankles. However, tip toe walking can also just be a form of interoceptive stimulation. 

Exercise and Neurochemistry

Many of the examples we gave for these different types of stimming are just physical activities. Things like jumping, dancing, swinging, swimming, walking; these are normal exercises!

So when is it a stimming behavior?

When it is self-regulatory.

But that line is still pretty blurry. The more we regularly engage in physical activities with positive sensory input, the more well-regulated humans are in general. 

The key with stimming, especially for adults, is often mindfulness. It’s choosing to focus on the sensory input, whether it’s inherent, like kicking a ball at soccer practice, or added, like kicking the floor during class.

What does this mean?

Well, it means that stimming is just as much a mental action as a physical one. 

It means that you can identify sensory needs and find activities to intentionally meet those needs

…and it means that humans just need exercise.

The neurochemicals associated with exercise, norepinephrine and dopamine, are the same ones thought to be associated with Autistic stimming. So not enough activity could lead to an increased need to stim in order to balance these chemicals in our brains.

That’s NOT to say exercise can eliminate stimming, because stimming is still heavily related to our environment and emotions. Even if I’ve just run a mile, if I go to the grocery store and get overwhelmed by the people, lights, music, and too many choices, I would still need to rock and flap to process this overload.

But, when I dance once or twice a week, I feel generally calmer, less irritated by noise, less fidgety, and more connected to my body. When I swim, I feel peaceful and powerful, and that feeling lingers even after I leave the pool. 

Having these regulating experiences is essential for coping with stressful environments.

Like life, it’s all about balance.

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