How Does Stimming Feel? A Q&A with Autistics

What is stimming?

Sometimes, Autistic and ADHD people experience extra stress. When that happens, we need to focus on regulating our bodies and minds.

One way to do this is creating a soothing physical sensation, called stimming– short for stimulating.

What are some examples of stimming?

We might tap our toes or flick our fingers.

…or run around and crash into the wall.

We could even sing a song so beautiful it makes you cry. 

What does stimming look like?

Repetitive stimming gets noticed the most, but stimming doesn’t have to be repetitive in order to feel good and provide an anchor for our thoughts. Pretty much anything can be a stim.

Neurotypical people do things which are similar to stimming: familiar actions like clicking a pen, enjoying movie quotes, or taking a hot bath- these things all stimulate the senses and regulate emotions.

Why do we stim?

Autistic people have different sensory systems than other people, so some of our physical sensations can be stronger or weaker than average.

Because most public places are not designed for Autistic sensory needs, it’s easy for us to get overwhelmed by environmental stimuli. Alternatively, being under-stimulated can feel like wanting to crawl out of our skin, and stimming helps in that situation as well.

So what does stimming do?

To cope, self-stimulating gives us a specific, soothing feeling to focus on that we can control.

Neurodivergent people also experience really strong emotions, which can be physically felt as energy in our bodies. Movement releases that energy and regulates our nervous system.

By processing our emotional and environmental input, stimming helps us clear the mind and untangle our thoughts.

Can you control stimming?

Sometimes we intentionally stim to manage these things, and other times stimming is an automatic response that we don’t even notice. Either way, trying to stop stimming is at least unhelpful and possibly detrimental: Autistic people deserve the freedom to express and self-regulate.

What does stimming feel like?

The best way to empathize with Autistic folks is to imagine how we feel

Since curious allistic (non-autistic) people wonder what stimming feels like, Autistic people describe the sensation to help you understand.

The need to stim can feel like: 

  • An electric charge zinging across the skin
  • A buzzing in the bones
  • A fire burning the whole body
  • A balloon expanding in the chest
  • A tangled mess inside the brain

During or after stimming, the relief feels like:

  • A weight being lifted from the shoulders or chest
  • Untangling a knot of ropes in the chest, stomach, or brain
  • Riding the crest of a wave that has been building up
  • A deep breath after holding it
  • A relaxing meditative state

Autistic people get physical and mental relief from stimming. As we release the trapped energy through movement, we can physically feel our nervous system calming down– and you can too!

How can I feel what stimming is like?

The 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 exercise, a common grounding technique for anyone experiencing anxiety or overwhelm, is a variation on stimming. 

This exercise helps you focus on being intentionally aware of your sensory input. By exploring your body’s relationship to its surroundings, this improves your mind/body connection. Over time, this awareness helps with regulating thoughts and emotions.

While you can exert a concentrated effort to walk yourself through the exercise, many neurodivergent people just intuitively stim without realizing it!

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