Stimming (short for self-stimulatory behaviour) is a repetitive series of actions which an autistic person may do when they are excited, anxious or stimulated.
Almost everyone engages in stimming to some degree in their own way. They might crack their knuckles, tap their feet, or even just hum and whistle. Autistic people are usually more overt when stimming. Flapping their hands, rocking back and forth and repeating certain words are just some of the ways they regulate their sensory processing.
The biggest differences between autistic and typical stimming are the type, quantity, and obviousness of the behaviour. It’s important to be aware and understanding when an autistic person is stimming. Some methods may appear odd or even inappropriate to onlookers, especially if it’s an adult, but drawing attention to their stimming will only cause more distress.
WHY IS STIMMING SO IMPORTANT?
An autistic person is able to self-regulate through stimming and navigate their sensory environment. This helps them cope with challenges in their sensory processing in their day-to-day lives. It is a means of easing physical pain and internal anxiety as well as expressing one’s emotions, from frustration to joy.
If an autistic individual doesn’t get an opportunity to stim and meet their sensory needs, then they may withdraw and ‘shut down’ or experience a meltdown. Do not try to stop a person stimming. This will only make them feel anxious and create negative associations in their minds with a particular person and or place.
WHEN DOES STIMMING OCCUR?
Stimming is often described as a coping mechanism when an autistic person is feeling overstimulated. Most people who aren’t on the spectrum are aware of their stimming and can control when and how long they engage in it for, yet this is not as straightforward for an autistic person. Stimming is often an involuntary response for someone on the spectrum and is therefore harder for them to control their behaviours.
Being aware of an autistic person’s needs is a great way of understanding what causes them to stim. In doing so, you can help create a safe setting for them to engage in stimming as well as develop sensory-friendly environments which can limit possible triggers in response to distress. A sensory audit is an excellent tool to use whilst doing this.
WHAT IF THE BEHAVIOUR IS DANGEROUS OR DISTRACTING TO OTHERS?
Stimming isn’t usually dangerous. It’s normally younger children who are discovering new ways of managing their sensory needs which you may need to keep an eye on.
That said, those individuals on the spectrum who have greater needs than others may engage in stimming behaviours that might risk harming themselves. These include (but are not limited to) banging one’s head against hard surfaces, biting, scratching or pulling hair.
If you think a person is in this situation, the first course of action should be to remove the source of distress, either pre-emptively or during the initial, ramp-up stages of meltdown. Or, if they are in the midst of a meltdown, redirect their harmful behaviour onto something else.
HOW CAN I HELP AN AUTISTIC PERSON WHEN THEY’RE STIMMING?
Accurately interpreting stimming can be tough for other people, whether they’re on the spectrum themselves or not. This is only made harder when in public and in crowded places. It’s easy to make assumptions when the person next to us on the train or in line suddenly flapping their hands or repeating certain phrases again and again.
It can cause embarrassment for autistic individuals engaging in the behaviour, however, even whilst they are in the middle of doing it; because stimming is often an involuntary reaction to an unexpected scenario, many cannot prepare for it.
It’s important to challenge anyone who may be jeering another engaging in stimming. Tackling biases like these is an important step in making wider society autism aware in everyday life. You can help an autistic person who’s stimming by giving them enough space and speaking to them in a level tone. Do not draw attention or interfere with their behaviour unless they may be at risk to themselves or others around them. Consider setting up a sensory space, if possible, where the person can use tools to manage their overstimulation in a private setting.