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 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.
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.”
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.
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.