By Raising Children Network
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Nervous girl stimming with fingers credit Calamityjohn
Self-stimulatory behaviour – or stimming – is common in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It usually won’t harm your child, but it’s normal to worry about how stimming affects your child’s learning and socialising. Skill development, environment changes and behaviour strategies can help.

About stimming and autism spectrum disorder

Self-stimulatory behaviour – or stimming – is repetitive or unusual body movement or noises.

We all use stimming sometimes. For example, some children suck their thumbs or twirl their hair for comfort, and others jiggle their legs while they’re working on a difficult problem or task. You might pace up and down if you’re anxious, or fiddle with a pen in a boring meeting. 

Many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) use stimming, although the amount and type of stimming varies a lot from child to child. For example, some children just have mild hand mannerisms, whereas others spend a lot of time stimming.

Children with ASD use stimming to manipulate their environment to produce stimulation, or because they have trouble with imagination and creativity and can’t think of other things to do, such as pretend play.

Examples of stimming include:

  • hand and finger mannerisms, like finger-flicking and hand-flapping
  • rocking the body back and forth while sitting or standing
  • posturing – holding hands or fingers out at an angle or arching the back while sitting
  • visual stimulation – looking at something sideways, watching an object spin or fluttering fingers near the eyes
  • repetitive behaviour like opening and closing doors or flicking switches
  • chewing or mouthing objects
  • listening to the same song or noise over and over.

Stimming isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t hurt your child. But some stimming can be ‘self-injurious’ – for example, severe hand-biting.

Stimming can also affect your child’s attention to the outside world, which in turn can affect her ability to learn and communicate with others. For example, if your child is flicking her fingers near her eyes, she might not be playing with toys so much and not developing her play skills. When she’s older, if she’s absorbed in watching her hands in front of her eyes in the classroom, she’s not engaged with her schoolwork. If she’s pacing around the fence in the playground, she’s missing valuable social opportunities.

Why children with autism spectrum disorder stim

Researchers think there might be several reasons for stimming. Stimming might happen because children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are:

  • oversensitive to the world around them – in this case, stimming can calm them down because it lets them focus on just one thing and takes away some of the sensory overload
  • undersensitive to their surroundings – in this case, stimming such as hand-flapping or finger-flicking can stimulate their ‘underactive’ senses
  • anxious – stimming might help reduce anxiety by calming them. This might be by focusing their attention on the behaviour or by producing a change in their body that calms them
  • excited – some children with ASD might flap their hands when they’re excited. Typically developing children stim too, such as when a child jumps up and down in excitement. But children with ASD will behave in this way for longer, or might combine several behaviours at once, such as flapping hands, squealing and jumping up and down.

Helping your child

Stimming often reduces as your child develops more skills and finds other ways to deal with sensitivity, understimulation or anxiety.

But there are also several things you can do to help your child with stimming.

Changing the environment
If your child finds the environment too stimulating, he might need a quiet place to go, or just one activity or toy to focus on at a time. If your child needs more stimulation, he might benefit from music playing in the background, a variety of toys and textures, or extra playtime outside.

Some schools have ‘sensory rooms’ designed for children with ASD who need extra stimulation. There might be equipment children can bounce on, swing on or spin around on, materials they can squish their hands into, and visually stimulating toys. 

Working on anxiety
You can also look at your child’s anxiety and its causes. Preparing your child for new situations and teaching her new skills to deal with things that make her anxious can reduce stimming.

Encouraging physical activity
Physical activity might reduce stimming by getting your child engaged with others and keeping him occupied. After exercise, children can often focus better on their work. If your child is engaged in his work, there’s less motivation to stim. You could try short sessions of physical activity throughout the day, to break up other activities.

Using behaviour strategies
You could try these behaviour techniques to help your child with stimming:

  • Reward your child if she stops stimming when you ask, and reward her when she’s not stimming. Rewards might include a sticker, or time to play with a favourite toy. The stim itself can be used as a reward for doing something else that’s positive. Stims can be great motivators.
  • Let your child stim after he does something that you’ve asked him to do. If you gradually build in more tasks before allowing your child to stim, stimming will gradually reduce and be replaced with more appropriate behaviour.
  • Teach your child that there’s a time and place for stimming. For example, you might say that her bedroom is the place, and after school is the time.

Where to go for help

Occupational therapists can help you tackle your child’s stimming and help teach play skills. A psychologist might also be able to help.

If your child’s behaviour is causing harm to herself or to other people, speak to your child’s paediatrician.

There’s a wide range of therapies and interventions for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) listed in our Parent Guide to Therapies. Each guide gives an overview of the therapy, what research says about it, and the approximate time and costs involved in using it.
  • Last updated or reviewed 21-11-2013
  • Acknowledgements

    This article was developed in collaboration with Amanda Richdale and Cherie Green, La Trobe University.