About stimming and autism
Stimming – or self-stimulatory behaviour – is repetitive or unusual body movement or noises. Stimming might include:
- hand and finger mannerisms – for example, finger-flicking and hand-flapping
- unusual body movements – for example, rocking back and forth while sitting or standing
- posturing – for example, holding hands or fingers out at an angle or arching the back while sitting
- visual stimulation – for example, looking at something sideways, watching an object spin or fluttering fingers near the eyes
- repetitive behaviour – for example, opening and closing doors or flicking switches
- chewing or mouthing objects
- listening to the same song or noise over and over.
Many autistic children and teenagers stim, although stimming varies a lot among children. For example, some children just have mild hand mannerisms, whereas others spend a lot of time stimming. Stimming can also vary depending on the situation. For example, some children stim, or stim more, when they’re feeling stressed or anxious.
Why autistic children and teenagers stim
Stimming seems to help autistic children and teenagers manage emotions like anxiety, anger, fear and excitement. For example, stimming might help them to calm down because it focuses their attention on the stim or produces a calming change in their bodies.
Stimming might also help children manage overwhelming sensory information. For autistic children who are oversensitive to sensory information, stimming can reduce sensory overload because it focuses their attention on just one thing. For autistic children who are undersensitive, stimming can stimulate ‘underactive’ senses.
How stimming affects autistic children and teenagers
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 your child’s ability to learn and communicate with others.
For example, if a child flicks their fingers near their eyes, they might not be playing with toys so much and not developing play skills. When the child is older, if they’re absorbed in watching their hands in front of their eyes in the classroom, they’re not engaged with schoolwork. Or if the child is pacing around the fence in the playground, they’re missing valuable social opportunities.
Helping autistic children and teenagers with stimming
Many autistic people feel they should be allowed to stim because stimming helps them to manage emotions and overwhelming situations. But if stimming is hurting your child or affecting their learning, social life and so on, it might be best for your child to stim less often.
You might be able to reduce your child’s need to stim by changing the environment or helping your child with anxiety. Also, stimming often reduces as your child develops more skills and finds other ways to deal with sensitivity, understimulation or anxiety.
Changing the environment
If your child finds the environment too stimulating, your child 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, your child might benefit from music playing in the background, a variety of toys and textures, or extra playtime outside.
Some schools have sensory rooms for autistic children 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
If you watch when and how much your child is stimming, you might be able to work out whether the stimming is happening because your child is anxious. Then you can look at your child’s anxiety and change the environment to reduce their anxiety.
For example, is there something new or changed in your child’s environment? Preparing your child for new situations and teaching your child new skills to deal with things that cause the anxiety can reduce stimming.
Where to go for help with stimming
Occupational therapists can help you look at environmental adjustments to support your child. A psychologist, an experienced Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) practitioner, or another professional who’s skilled in using behaviour interventions might also be able to help.
If your child’s behaviour is causing your child harm or hurting other people, speak to your child’s GP, paediatrician, psychologist, another health professional working with your child, or school support staff.