Stimming 101, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Stim

justkeepstimming_fullEverybody does it.

It’s perfectly normal, but often embarrassing—something we encourage our children to suppress, or do in private.

Existing on a continuum from healthy, to bad habit, to scandalizing, stimming is as diverse as humanity itself.

What is stimming?

Stimming—short for self-stimulation—is a term that has yet to make it into any dictionary, despite being one of the most commonly understood terms within the autism community. Called “stereotypy” by psychiatrists, stimming refers to:

“…a repetitive body movement that self-stimulates one or more senses in a regulated manner.”

(My favorite definition, from the Autism Wiki.)

I’d first like to make it clear that a stim is not the same as a tic. Where stims are rhythmic and regular, tics are non-rhythmic and sudden. That being said, I’ve shared anecdotes with several individuals with Tourette’s syndrome, and our (nonprofessional) consensus was that tics and stims do seem to have a lot in common. Both can (sometimes) be held back, although holding back both feels very uncomfortable. While holding back a tic seems closer to holding back a sneeze, I would say that holding back a stim could be compared to holding off on scratching an itch (if that itch never went away, and kept increasing with time, like a mosquito with its nose in your flesh that refuses to leave).

While everyone stims sometimes, autistic people do it far more frequently than their neurotypical counterparts. To make things even more interesting, autistic people often present uniquely specific types of stimming.

The most famous hallmarks of autistic stimming can be divided into three major categories:

  • Hand stimming, including hand flapping, finger waving, and finger wiggling
  • Body stimming, including rocking, spinning, and head bobbing
  • Vocal stimming, including groaning, screeching, and various forms of echolalia

While these are the some of the most well-known (and most attention-grabbing) autistic stims, stimming is incredibly diverse and often unique to a particular individual or situation.

Other types of stims include, but are not limited to: staring at a blinking or spinning object, rubbing and touching various textured surfaces, licking or chewing objects, twirling or petting hair, cracking joints, tapping the feet, and any number of other repetitive, stimulatory activities.

Neurotypical people stim too! Some notable neurotypical stims include tapping fingers or feet to music, stroking the face when stressed, or rocking in a rocking chair.

When I was a child, my earliest and most noticeable stims consisted of sucking my thumb (often while rubbing the rough part of my precious blankie against my upper lip) and pressing or rubbing my eyes.

I once sat through an entire morning meeting in elementary school with my eyes pressed firmly into my knees. The darkness soothed, and the pressure felt firm and comforting. The other children, sitting cross-legged and watching the teacher, didn’t notice until we broke to begin the first lesson.

Kirsten’s crying,” one classmate squealed. I looked up, confused, as the message made its way around the room, repeated on the lips of my peers.

No, I’m not,” I protested. But the pressure had turned my eyes red, and “I’m just pressing my knees into my eyes” sounded more like a badly-planned childish excuse to the teacher who was by that point trying to comfort a very embarrassed me.

Why do autistic people stim?

I get this question quite often from teachers who work with autistic children. They’re excited to meet me, an autistic person articulate enough to explain the autistic mindset, and want to know the why behind the uniquely autistic behaviors they see in their students.

And they’re often surprised by how easy this question is to answer.

I once visited the ASD program at The Ivymount School in Rockville, Maryland, a fabulous place for misfit kids of all types. I remember walking through the classrooms and seeing the tykes politely asking for their three-minute breaks when they felt overwhelmed, leaving their desks to go put on stretchy pressure vests, or play with a stim toys, or lie under weighted blankets or pillows. I thought, what I wouldn’t give to have had such an understanding environment as a child.

After touring a few of the classrooms, I found myself amidst a group of young teachers, listening to them tell stories about their many wonderful students. They spoke in particular of an adorable little girl who seemed a universal favorite. The teachers squealed and cooed as they recounted tales of her cuteness: her rosy cheeks, her bright eyes, her Bo Peep curls and squeaky little voice.

“Every time I see her I just want to hug and squeeze her forever!” one teacher exclaimed, hugging her arms to her chest and spinning back and forth on the balls of her feet.

“Oh, I know, I know! She’s just the sweetest little thing,” said another teacher, squeezing her eyes shut and pulling her bent arms tight against her body, chin on her fists, while quickly bending at the waist and straightening again.

“I just can’t handle how darling she is!” said a third, wringing her hands and wiggling her shoulders back and forth.

The conversation eventually progressed to an older student—a middle school boy—who was very fond of anime, particularly shojo romance shows.

“It’s just so fascinating to watch how into it he gets,” said one teacher of the boy’s class, “I watch with him sometimes, and the stories are all about this G-rated sexual tension that goes nowhere, until the very end when the two main characters confess their love and get together! The whole build up makes him stim like crazy!” She throws up her arms. “He’ll just hunch over and wiggle his fingers like mad whenever any major progress happens in the relationships! I just don’t understand it.

“Yeah, I have students like that,” says another teacher.

“I don’t know if this is too vague of a question,” a teacher turns to me and says. “Could you explain why autistic people stim like that? Where does it come from? I just don’t get it.

I laughed.

I explained that they themselves had been “stimming like crazy” over their darling tiny student with the adorable curls just a few minutes earlier. Perhaps their stims were not as extreme as those of the preteen boy as he watched his favorite romantic comedies, but the root cause was the same.

The build up of emotion, the need to release emotional or physical tension due to an overload (of cuteness, of moe, of anxiety, of anything), is something that everyone has felt at some time or another.

Autistics are easily overloaded, and simply need to release tension more frequently. When I stim, I often feel like an old fashioned boiler letting off pressure—sometimes in tiny bursts, sometimes in huge belches of steam.

Sometimes stimming releases pressure—especially the good kind of stimming. Sometimes a stim will help us focus to block out invasive and overwhelming sensory input, becoming an essential coping aide.

It’s a type of self-soothing, whether one needs to be soothed because something is just too cute or because that ambulance siren is just way too loud, the root cause is essentially the same.

In my opinion, the question shouldn’t be why autistic people stim, it should be why do autistic people stim in such a specific way. Not every autistic stims, and not every autistic person shares all the typically autistic stims. I’m a finger waver, but I’m not often a hand flapper. I have a vast number of vocal stims, but I’m not usually a rocker or a bobber. I know hair-twirlers who rock back and forth. I know knuckle-crackers and foot-tappers who don’t wave fingers or flap hands. Every autistic is as unique as her own personal stimming lexicon.

Public stimming

As a child, I boasted a large repertoire of stims, though most of them required very particular, coincidentally private environments, and thus spared me embarrassment.

When I was very small, every time I hoisted my little body onto the toilet at my childhood home I would spend my potty time croaking like a frog, in long, drawn out vocalizations, enjoying the echo of the buzzing vibrations against the tiles. Whenever I flushed, I rapidly pressed my fingers into my ears over and over, making the terrifying bellow of the toilet into the “whoosh-whoosh-whoosh” of an ocean at an impossible 300 BPM —a trick I learned from a preschool teacher to make using the big kid bathrooms easier, and I still do this every time I flush a toilet. Stims like these never caused me problems, because they required a private setting.

But as I grew older, one of my bathroom rituals made its way into my public life.

Besides croaking like a frog, if I were feeling particularly energetic, I would wiggle my fingers before my eyes in front of the white background of the bathroom. Not only did the motion seem to provide an incomparable degree of relief from pent-up energy, but the palinopsiac trails left by my fingers created of two pink fans, a visual stim that pleased me for no reason I can properly name.

The satisfaction I derived from stimming this way before a white surface is utterly indescribable—and it had to be a white surface, or at least very light in color, for the pink fan to work properly.

At some point after discovering this amazing activity, I began to need it more and more. It went from a stim confined to the bathroom at home to a stim that happened in every bathroom, and eventually to a stim that happened in front of almost every white surface, regardless of who might be present.

Because I was now doing it in public, especially when stressed, I also began doing it in my most stressful environment: school.

By the time I made it to the 6th grade I was doing it multiple times per hour. As you can imagine, I was made fun of quite a bit. My teacher eventually contacted my mother, expressing worry that the other kids were giving me a hard time, and his own personal worry that I literally couldn’t control it. I told my mother that of course I could control it.

But even I didn’t understand why I seemed to need it.

All that hubbub was enough to convince me to try it in front of a mirror, and I quickly realized why it was so controversial among my peers. After that, I never did it in public again.

I still do it in my car, in the bathroom, and other times when I’m alone. And of course, always in front of a white surface (my computer monitor is absolutely perfect, for example).

Once in a blue moon, when I have a good, easy day and I feel comfortable, calm, and connected, I’ll start to think to myself, “What if I’m not ‘really’ autistic? I feel pretty normal today!

Then I’ll head to the bathroom and dissolve into a compulsive fit of finger waving, or drive home after a day of socializing and screech, squeal, and shriek to myself in my car, and think, “Oh, right. I don’t think neurotypical people do this.

By now, the only stims I do in public are small, and relatively “normal.” I crack my knuckles, bite my lips, hum and whistle, tap my foot or fingers, and clean under my fingernails (instead of biting!*). I save my serious stimming for private venues.

Unless of course I have a particularly bad day, and then I’m that girl on the subway rubbing my forehead, massaging my jaws, and clenching and unclenching my fists in front of my face. Hi! Don’t mind me, it’s just a little crowded today!

But not every autistic is able to save their serious stims for the bathroom. And by “serious,” I mean “socially inappropriate.”

Stim shaming

Another question I commonly encounter comes most often from parents: How do I make my child stop stimming?

First, I try to direct the parent or guardian away from the impossible goal of literally stopping their child’s stims.

For one thing, this goal is unattainable (the wonderful Cynthia Kim, author of the blog Musings of an Aspie, compares controlling stimming to playing whack-a-mole in her blog post on this topic).

More importantly, demonizing stimming and attempting to stop it is incredibly cruel.

This is like telling a person to stop dancing to music, to stop even tapping their foot to the beat.

It’s like telling a child to never scratch his itches, to never yawn, to never sneeze.

And it’s even worse than all those things, because stimming is essential to autistic happiness in sanity in a way that simply can’t be explained to a neurotypical incapable of imagining what it feels like.

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.

If you are the parent or guardian of a stimmy child, and your goal is to stop your child from stimming—to teach her to stop flapping her hands, or repeating her cat’s meows, or chewing on her shirt sleeves in the grocery store—know that you are aiming for an impossible standard.

Stimming is a valuable tool for autistics to self-regulate, self-sooth, and gain familiarity and control over their bodies and environments.

Think of how a baby stims: head-bobbing, arm and leg flailing, making faces at strangers, repeating syllables, chewing and licking everything they can get their hands on. Would you try to stop a baby from stimming?

If you can see your child’s stimming as equal in importance to the “innocent” stimming of a baby then you are 90% of the way there.

Yes, other adults will sometimes give you and your child that look when they see a child “old enough to know better” chewing holes in her coat, getting up to walk around at mealtimes, or jumping up and down during storytime at the library.

But a stranger’s opinion—or even your mother-in-law’s opinion—of your family pales in comparison to the value of your child’s health and happiness.

To follow Cynthia Kim’s whack-a-mole analogy: if you keep your child from stimming, the stim will always come up in another (usually worse) way.

You are plugging up the boiler, as though the steam should not exist.

At the end of the day (if he can wait that long!) your child is going to explode into a meltdown, and you’ll have taken zero steps forward and a hundred steps back.

I find this mentality most common among what I call “anti-autism” parents or specialists. These are the people that say, “I love my child, but I hate my child’s autism.” They are usually well meaning (if misguided) parents who only want to spare their child a difficult life.

But autism is not like depression, anorexia nervosa, or PTSD. Autism is not the demon we should be fighting. The true demons are disability, anxiety, and misery.

Autism is an integral part of who a person is. Just as extrovert, male, or gay are all defining personality traits, autism is not in-and-of-itself a disability; it is a type of person. A child who grows up with a support network that hates a core part of his identity is going to have serious self-esteem issues, at the least. And a parent who hates his child’s autism is going to have a miserable life, always at war with his child.

It is the anti-autism attitude that creates the real demons of depression, PTSD, and self-hatred.

Many parents who do accept and cherish their children, autism and all, will still ask how to control stimming. They understand that stimming is not an inherent evil, something to be stopped, or something that can be stopped. But they watch their child flapping and shrieking on the playground, groaning and wailing at the hair salon, or rocking and humming in church, and they see the stares. They imagine with dread their child’s future job interviews, dates, and college classes with people who equate stimming with “unstable” and “crazy.” They just want to know if there’s anything that can be done to make their children a little more socially acceptable, and their lives a little easier.

There are two approaches to this problem.

On one hand, a “high-functioning” (and in this context I mean self-aware) child may be taught to stim like this in private, the way that I taught myself. Allowing a child to watch himself stim in a mirror, and divide stims into public and private, can sometimes work. Public stims may include foot or knee tapping, finger waving under the table or in pockets, jumping, wiggling, rocking, and spinning back and forth on a pivoting chair or on foot. Private stims—things that “disturb” or “distract” others—may be things like screaming and groaning in quiet environments, or nose picking (a private stim many neurotypicals are guilty of, if my observations of my boyfriend are any indication). If parents can teach their children not to masturbate in public (a very common stim in autistic and neurotypical children), then perhaps the same principles can be applied to stims that disturb neighbors in church or frighten peers on the playground. But again, this may not be possible, and it definitely isn’t possible or healthy in very young children.

On the other hand, many (I would argue most) children cannot control their stimming.

For some, sensory processing difficulties are simply too overwhelming, and there is just no way to hold back those essential self-calming behaviors. For children like this, the only real problem is other adults. As Cynthia Kim discusses in her post on socially acceptable stimming, it’s not autistic behavior that’s the problem, it’s the reactions of strangers, and the embarrassment of parents.

I’ve heard countless heart-breaking stories from parents whose children were assaulted and harassed in public by adults who misread autistic behavior as naughty behavior. One mother described a woman approaching her screaming son and shaking him, while chastising his mother for not controlling her child.

Children may stare at or taunt autistic peers, but from the stories I hear it seems to me that adults are the main perpetrators of outright (and often dangerous) abuse. Having a spiel at the ready to explain the situation (either verbally, or on printed cards that can be handed out) can help a naïve neurotypical avoid making similar mistakes in the future. Preparing an explanatory presentation for you or your child’s teacher to give to her class can be similarly helpful. (Note: This is one of many reasons why I oppose hiding a diagnosis from a child. You need to be able to discuss these things in front of them concisely and safely!)

And when it comes to job interviews, I advise autistics to follow the advice of Temple Grandin, who always says that she couldn’t sell herself, so she made sure to sell her accomplishments. Build a portfolio, make yourself an expert, showcase your invaluable skills.

Also, stimmy children don’t have to control their behaviors to make stimmy friends. While an autistic child may have a harder time making friends, and have fewer friends than their same age neurotypical counterparts, autism is a powerful selective pressure when it comes to finding true and loyal friends. One of my best friends in high school was a beautiful caricature of ADHD, a neverending source of class-disrupting verbal stimming and flailing. We got along swimmingly and stimmed together, repeating phrases and sounds and generally torturing our poor math teacher.

Stimming is normal, healthy, and fun. And it’s not something to be feared or stopped. Can you imagine life without spinning in circles barefoot in the grass, or bobbing your head to the beat of your favorite song? It’s just another part of life. So don’t be afraid to just keep stimming.


Note: I am going to do a future post on how to deal with dangerous and unhealthy stimming. Not all stimming is safe, and there are ways to deal with these. If your child is hurting himself, you obviously can’t just dismiss that because “stimming is normal.” When I finish that article I’ll link to it here!


*I compulsively bit my nails from third grade (when I first read this book, inspiring the habit) until around the age of 21. Autistics are notorious victims of habits like nail biting and skin picking. I plan to write a future blog post about why these habits are so difficult to break, and how to quit.


  1. I really believe that stimming is a sign of resilience. It is a perfect example of a person soothing themselves through a stressful situation. What could be a better example of strength than that?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I have a severely affect son, 12 years old, also has Down syndrome. He stims almost all day, every day. He’s non-verbal. I know he loves to stim, but I wish he could divert from spinning his sock and watch a TV show or listen to me reading a book once in awhile. Thanks for sharing you story.


    • He may very well be listening and just not show it. Especially to something like you reading to him. I’m sure even if he doesn’t engage with you that activities like that are beneficial 🙂


  3. I find this very interesting. My son stims all day long and the school is asking him why he does this and how can they help him to stop. It is very frustrating. He keep telling them he does not know. But they want to give him things to use so when he feels it starting he can stop. He just starts, does not think about it…It just happens. He is high functioning with a lot of stimming autistic 10 year old child. What kind of answer do t hey think he will get? I need to show them this article. Thanks.


    • I’m glad you appreciated it! I do feel that destructive of dangerous stimming (self-injury, for example) should be discouraged, but the vast majority of stimming is safe, and necessary self-regulatory behavior, so I really hate when schools insist on “quiet hands” as part of a learning environment. Most autistic students need some degree of stimming in order to focus and learn!


  4. My almost 16 year old son with non verbal autism drives us crazy at times with his loud “GA!” Noise and slapping himself on the arms……it is affecting his school, other kids in the class who like it quiet, and his after school program…….not even sure what triggered it or where it came from….he will calm down for small period of time, like say a week or so, then he is right back at it…..we are trying homeopathy remedies to see if we can fix whatever pathway is broken in him……it’s literally driving us insane…….😋…..he is cute, and sweet, and has good qualities too, but I hope this calms down soon…….or mama might need some special herbs herself….lol!!!


    • I assume the answer is yes, but just in case: Have either you or the school tried redirecting the stim? Perhaps squeezing his arms every time you see him slap, and encourage him to squeeze himself instead of slapping? Constant interruption and redirection can sometimes be a successful way to break disruptive or damaging stimming habits. Stopping it all together probably won’t work, but replacing it with something else might!


    • Nothing is “broken” in your son, I’m a fan of homeopathy myself, but I would not use it to try to “fix” an Autistic who, judging by your description, does not seem to be suffering. If you really do think something is wrong here then it may not be a stim, it may be a tic disorder in which case you could try vetiver oil to give him more of a delay before the tic to stop himself (it worked for me for awhile,) or see if a doctor will prescribe a medication, this only applies on the off chance that it is a tic disorder.


  5. Kirsten!! This article was wonderful and I could relate to so much of it, but the note at the end blew me away! I am 34 and being evaluated for aspergers this week. I’ve read everything I can find about it and im convinced that I have been dealing with this my entire life and never knew!! I started biting my nails in kindergarten after reading the same book, The Bearnstein Bears Bad Habit. When I clicked on the link and saw that book I was floored! I can’t believe all the connections I’m seeing to everyone else’s stories. I’m nervous and a little scared but also very excited to finally learn why I am the way I am!! Thank you for posting!!


  6. I am a teacher and want to help a child whose stimming is hindering his learning and that of others. His teacher has put his desk in the back of the room so the stimming will be less noticed by others. He is in 2nd grade and his reading is at kindergarten level it was up to first grade level at the end of first grade. He plays a lot of video games at home and a lot of his stimming is exaggerated gaming or game control moves as well as his vocalizations. At times he acts like he is in the game dying, shooting, etc. How Can I Help This WONDERFUL child? How can I help him concentrate in school and still have time and a safe place to swim or how do I get things like the weighted blanket or other things to keep the stimming down yet keep him calm and help him and the others to be able to gain knowledge throughout the day?


    • A weighted blanket is actually a great idea!
      My first question is to wonder whether this is only stimming, or if he’s playing pretend? Is he pretending to play video games, imagining the game? Because that would be harder to deal with. But if it’s mostly sensory in origin, then it would be about figuring out what kind of input he needs, or what needs to be taken away. Does he like to move around a lot? Maybe sitting on a wobbly therapy stool or an exercise ball could give him vestibular and motor input. Does he like to make noise? A white noise machine might help. A weighted blanket provides calming deep pressure. And so on. Does the boy have an IEP? And does he have a sensory profile recorded anywhere?


  7. I just found this today. I was doing a search to learn about auditory stimming, but now I’m not sure what’s going on. My son is 7 1/2 and diagnosed with ADHD (primarily impulsive, barely “passed” on hyperactive and inattentive). We homeschool and so there is a lot more flexibility for what would be considered “annoyingly unacceptable” behavior in a classroom, but we’re teaching those skills as well as we can.

    Side note: We have a houseguest whose two boys have Aspergers, and he noticed our daughter doing some minor stimming (it had been a loud day and she had been stuck inside; she was flinging herself at the arm of the couch over and over) and offered some suggestions to help redirect to a more socially acceptable solution than what she was doing. It was kind of stuck in my mind after that, and suddenly I realized that it may be what my son does, as well.

    He is constantly making noise. I mean, not like standard little kid constantly making noise, REALLY CONSTANTLY making noise. He has a few noises that he goes back to – which I had originally overlooked in this context since they are related to creative play (flying noises, honking noises) – and at any given time he will have a song that he sings and/or hums, CONSTANTLY. If asked to stop, he’ll apologize, and then start up again literally seconds later without even realizing he’s doing it. In fact, he’s usually zoned out. I would estimate that he spends an average of 30 minutes of every waking hour repeating the song of the day/week/month. I am amazed it doesn’t hurt his throat to make noise so often.

    It doesn’t stop him from functioning, but whenever he’s not engaged in a conversation (or even if he is and he “checks out” a little) or distracted by a screen, he’s doing it. It seems to be mainly happy, not anxious, so maybe it’s a comforting thing? but also when he’s bored. Regardless, it is alllllllllllll the tiiiiiiiime, and that’s the problem. We are losing our minds over here.

    I started googling about it wondering if there is a standard thing that could prompt the need for this particular type of stim, because I really do think that’s what it is, but this article has me a bit discouraged. I don’t want to be an evil mom, killing his comforting action, but it gets to the point where the adults are overstimulated. Maybe he’s not screaming or whatever but this is my reality, hours of it a day, and we need something to change. The only thing I have found successful is having him put on headphones and listen to music from his mp3 player, but then he doesn’t hear when we call for him and he often gets distracted from what he’s supposed to be doing, because he focuses on the music. And those are issues that we’re working on right now, that I don’t want to mess up. 😦

    It is like 3am here and I am not sure I can wrap this up tidily, but basically I don’t know if “just accept it” will work for us, but on the other hand, I don’t know what else I can offer and/or how I can redirect him to something that isn’t as frustrating for us. I don’t expect you to have a miracle answer to solve my problem but perhaps you have some insight or perspective that will help? Either way, thanks for this article. It definitely gave me food for thought after my quick google search. I’ll share it with my husband too.


    • Sorry for the late reply. That definitely sounds like stimming, and does fit with the typical adhd profile—adhd kids tend to be more sensory-seeking than sensory-avoidant, and need additional sensory input to stay regulated. It sounds like he needs auditory input. There are a few ways to deal with this. A white noise machine, for example. Also, playing music on a stereo in the background. I recommend instrumental music. You want auditory stimulation, not distraction, and it can sometimes be a fine line. There are websites that specialize in music for adhd—I’m on my phone right now but perhaps some googling could yield something?


    • That comment really hit home when I read it. My son is 3 and a half years old, diagnosed with being on the spectrum. He is stimming all the time, all day as well, and it’s driving us up the wall. His thing is he loves to take something, mostly books, but anything, and slap it back and forth between his hands…forever!! I’ll take the book away and he just goes and gets another one. He does this to the pages of the books and NEVER stops! He doesn’t seem anxious, or nervous to me…he just does it. It’s never quite in the house, and I don’t know how to distract him and get him to do something else, perhaps something quieter. I don’t want to stop him from stimming if it makes him feel better, but if he doesn’t find another outlet, I’m going to loose my mind. I don’t know what to do!


  8. My son is 3, almost 4. He has dual diagnosis autism and down syndrome. He’s non verbal and very much his own person with his own stubborn rules. He stims constantly almost all day. His normally involves chewing on his thumb or pointer finger. He’ll chew so much and so hard he’ll actually break skin and hurt himself. Is there any way to redirect that or help? He also likes to twirl things (washcloths, wipes, socks etc) or screech or groan. Well, it’s more of a chirp. I don’t want to upset him or disrupt him but I also don’t want him to be hurting himself this way. Any suggestions?


    • Do chew toys help? Websites like sell toys that are meant to be chewed on. In my experience, chewing on hands and fingers can often be redirected into chewing on other items. If it’s the mouth stimulation he needs, that could help. If it’s finger stimulation, then giving him rough-textured objects to play with can also help!


  9. Because ultimately, marriage is not about getting something
    — it’s about giving it. What are the messages being sent by
    our communities’ parents, our televisions’ reality shows and our country’s leaders (including Eliot Spitzer, who has three daughters)
    about the value of a woman and her worth. Sou) find themselves trapped outside during the Purge.


  10. Hi. I (female, 25) am in the process of getting an autism diagnosis. I realize now that some of my behavior is stimming. And I really want to make something positive out of this. I’m learning to drive, but I have a lot of anxiety and sensory overload. I was thinking, maybe if I can find something that will help me deal with that (a stim), I will finaly pass my drivers exam. Can you think of some things that I could try? I’m not feeling very creative and the sounds that I’m making when I get really anxious seem unfit for driving with an instructor present…


    • The first thing I would suggest is practicing breathing exercises! When you breathe in, your heart rate increases, and when you breathe out, your heart rate decreases. So start off by breathing in for 4 seconds and out for 6 (or longer, if you can handle it). After a few rounds of that, try to breathe in and out for the same amount of time; this regulates your heart rate into a nice pretty sine wave that helps to keep you calm. I personally do in for 4, out for 4, because it’s the easiest for me to count on the go (considering you want something you can do while driving that won’t be distracting).

      I would recommend sitting in the car for a minute or so to calm and center yourself before starting the exam. You can tell the instructor, “I just need a second. Testing environments make me anxious.” No one will think less of you for calming down before you start driving; if anything, it’ll make you look really mature and self-aware. Everyone is nervous during driver’s ed!

      If you like deep hand pressure, maybe bring along a squeezy toy, like a stress ball. Also, I really like those colorful oil and water timers for calming down before or after something stressful (I googled “oil and water timer” and the right thing came up so I’m sure you could find something that way). Hold one up to your eye level, and watch it while you do deep breathing exercises. It gives you a visual stim to focus on so you can drown out the stressful stuff while you center.


      • Thank you for your reply! I have been trying breathing exercises in other environments, but I seem to forget them while it comes to driving. I will try to do them next class, to see if it helps. I have never seen those oil and water timers (they look like lava lamps a bit) – they’re great. Even the videos make me happy. I’m going to try and see if I can get one!


        • Yeah, taking a moment to do them before the class starts (and before you start the car) can help with the fact that it’s easy to forget coping skills while in the moment (actually driving). Good luck!


  11. Thank you for this article.

    I have a stim that basically takes over my life. I’ve never heard of someone else who does something so extreme; I grab onto a counter and violently rock back and forth while I think, which usually (while I stim) is in the form of highly vivid and detailed visual images. Because of how “extreme” this stim is, I don’t do it in public and it took me quite a while to learn how to not do it at school in the handicapped bathroom (I would grab onto the bar in those restrooms). Either way, it takes up a lot of my time as I will do this for hours and I feel horrible about it because I am 19 and I feel so compelled to do this (and like your article stated, the impulse gets very strong when I listen to music, have finished watching a movie or read a book, etc.). I get the same sensation when I go onto a swing, am a passenger in a car ride near a window, or am about to go to sleep. What kind of stim is this and how do I lessen it?

    I’ve been evaluated and it is unlikely I have asperger’s.


    • Thanks for your comment! First, I’d like to say that stimming isn’t only an autism spectrum thing. I know many people diagnosed with “sensory processing disorder” who don’t meet the autism criteria. Atypical sensory needs are something that can occur without other autistic symptoms.

      Your description makes this sound like a primarily vestibular stim, meaning that it’s about stimulating the inner ear and has to do with motion. (Falling asleep can make sense in this context too, believe it or not; the muscle relaxation that happens can trick the body into feeling as though one is falling, meaning that the inner ear is getting conflicting information from the body.)

      If you’re looking to lessen it (especially if this need takes up so much of your time) I’d recommend finding other ways to get low to moderate levels of vestibular stimulation throughout the day. I think the best strategy to try first is to work vestibular stimulation into your normal routine, but in smaller increments. Think of it like giving yourself a dose of something. If you can give yourself this type of input in lower doses more constantly, perhaps you won’t need such intense doses after long periods without getting vestibular stimulation (I’ve had success with similar methods working with children who need various types of input).

      Some ideas could include… Taking breaks to spin around a few times, for example, or investing in a chair that allows movement (a cheap option is to sit on an exercise ball instead of a chair). Try reading upside down (lie on a bed and let your head hang). Sitting in a spinning chair and rotating slowly while reading or doing school work could be another idea.

      Your sensory needs aren’t inherently a problem, it sounds like your real issue is how much time this takes up. Don’t be embarrassed to take breaks to stim. Ideally you’d want to find a routine where you can stim without getting stuck in a perseveration loop (and compulsively doing it for hours without stopping).


  12. Hi Kirsten,

    I am a 34 year old male and I do not know if the stims that i possess are a sign of Asperger or something else. I have had these types of stims for as long as I can remember. Basically what I do is wring my hands and rub my head really fast when I am doing laundry. I find that the taking of dirty laundry and making it clean via the washing machine sets off my stim more than anything else. I will also wring and twitch my hands and eyes randomly throughout the day when I feel a lot of anxiety coming on, which is often. Once in a while I will also hit myself in the head with my hand when I get overwhelmed with anxiety. It’s almost like I can feel the anxiety building up in my veins and have to do something to relieve it. I don’t think you are a doctor, but I was just seeing if you had an opinion or an idea as to what could be wrong with me, never hurts to check.

    Thanks a lot,

    Luke H.


    • Yep, this sounds like normal stimming. I will add that stimming isn’t unique to the autism spectrum. Many people are diagnosed with “sensory processing disorder,” meaning that they have autistic-esq sensory processing differences without other symptoms of autism. I recommend the book “Raising a Sensory Smart Child” for information about just the sensory side of this type of thing (the book is obviously written for parents but it’s helpful for anyone with sensory processing differences).


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