Stimming – What it is and Why They Do It

An Autistic Person’s Number One Calming Tool – What’s it all about?


In the Autism community we’re used to jargon-busting. We live with acronyms being thrown around with the speed of a space gun, and then we like to add our own terms in to boot. ‘Stimming’ is one of these. It’s a colloquial term. Utter it to an old-school GP or Joe Bloggs on the street and you’re going to be met with a ‘huh?’ face.


What is Stimming?


Good old Wikipedia Wikipedia gives a nice neat definition. In short, it’s shorthand for Self-Stimulatory Behaviour. Yeah, yeah, we all balked at this term to begin with. Get your mind out of the gutter. It’s probably a main driving reason the term ‘Stimming’ was born. It is behaviour that is undertaken to calm and regulate. It’s an Autistic Bods Go-To when excitement builds, anxiety threatens or sensory overload takes hold.


I’m not about to expose Boo’s stims. He’s pretty self-conscious about them. But they do include a diverse range of visual, auditory and vestibular behaviour. They are designed, by the Autistic Architect himself, to block out the world, process thoughts, and, well, cope. Common Autistic stims include hand-flapping and spinning. These are the stereotypes. Don’t, however, confuse stimming with tics, they aren’t one and the same. Tics are involuntary. Stimming is a chosen tool in the Autism This-World-Is-Crazy toolbox, even when they don’t seem to have any control over it.


Stimming Can be Infuriating


Too right it can be.


I’d be lying if I didn’t say some of his stimming behaviour drives me potty. The twist? I’m round it. Echolalia (repeating sounds and made up words) is a Boo staple like with many others with Autism, and boy, that can get under the skin, in your ears, and grate your nerves like soft cheddar. I’d like to say I have the patience of a saint. I don’t. But I don’t deny these behaviours, these stims, are there for a reason. He needs stimming like we all need water. It’s not optional for life.


Interestingly, Boo started his main stimming behaviour before he was one. Gifted I tell ya. It’s morphed a little along the way, but basically it’s the same. This particular stim was up there in our continual internal debate of “is this normal?” It was there in the list of behaviours explained that ultimately led to his diagnosis (in desperation for someone to see what we saw, I even recorded it to show the Paediatrician – the knowing, unsurprised nod said it all). The thing is, it was quirky in a toddler, downright odd in a 9 year old.


And so that begs the question: should we stop it? Should we train the stimming out of him?


Should we Stop the Stimming?


Just listen up a second. This world isn’t all too Autism friendly. Yet. Boo is bombarded minute by minute by challenges, sensory overload, and social quagmires that leave him, frankly, exhausted and anxious. Why, as someone who really quite likes this kid, would I take away, or make him feel bad about, the thing that helps him cope? If my parenting of this kiddo is guided in love, why would I take away his own, amazingly found and self-taught skill?


On an adult level, I don’t care what other people think. I like the Rhino-Hide look. I know this kid is incredible and going to enrich the world of the people he meets and has relationships with. But, stimming becomes a problem when others make it so. When it becomes grounds for teasing. When it becomes grounds for others to judge within Boo’s earshot, or even behind his back. He’s not stupid. He’s aware his stimming doesn’t fit neatly in to Boringly Normal Behaviour.


So that’s the first job: we try to teach and guide Boo that there are times and a place for stimming. We make time and honour it. We also try to teach him more socially acceptable ways of achieving the same end. The treadmill, with its rhythmic pounding is a winner here. We hope in time, the trampoline.


You see, Neurotypicals in fact stim too. So there. It’s just they do it within the confines of socially acceptable behaviour: nail-biting, hair fiddling and repetitive tapping, to name just a few. And if Neurotypicals need it, with their greater regulatory control and their naturally more attuned acceptance and understanding of the world, then why shouldn’t my Autistic Boo?


But when it becomes dominating, to the degree they are using it to shut out the world more than they live in it, maybe then it’s a problem? After all, tough though the reality is, Boo does need to grow up to learn to not just function, but thrive in this neurotypical world. And so childhood has to be the prime learning ground for gathering those skills. And if that includes learning alternatives to stimming, as well as understanding when it is socially acceptable, then I’m here as his guide at his side. I’ll be a Mother Tiger if I see anyone dare judge, but I’ll also be a gentle encourager of life-skills. I rock the split personality.


There’s also another time when Stimming might need stopping. And that’s when the child is hurting themselves through the stim. I’m fortunate in that I’ve only experienced head-banging on a handful of occasions, but nonetheless, at these times I had to step in and protect Boo from coming out of the stimming behaviour looking like he’d just been in a Boxing Ring.


But Stimming has a treasured place in our lives. It’s very much part of what makes Boo, well, Boo. It’s there with incredible power to calm and process, when nothing else hits the spot. So for that I’m grateful for stimming. I’m grateful it’s there and a weapon in the Autistic arsenal.


Have you encountered anyone in the non-Autism World who understands the term ‘stimming’? What tricks have you learned to help make it more socially acceptable to the same self-calming ends?



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