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Autism Stimming: What are the Key Causes and Behaviors?

May 25, 2021


If you’re an autism parent, it is likely you’ve seen your child present repetitive stimming (self stimulatory) behaviors such as hand flapping, spinning, and shaking. These behaviors can be worrying if they’re not fully understood.

In this guide we will discuss everything you need to know about stimming in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and how to manage stimming behaviors.

What is stimming?

Stimming is a shortened way of describing “self stimulation”. In a nutshell, stimming refers to self-stimulating behaviors, usually involving repetitive movements or sounds.

Although stimming is one of many possible indicators a child might be on the autism spectrum or have ADHD, stimming behavior does not necessarily mean a person is neurodivergent. 

stimming

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AUTISM STIMMING: CAUSES, MANAGEMENT, AND TYPES

A person who stims tends to show repetitive body movements (such as rocking) that can involve all five senses, or they might move objects in a repetitive motion. You might also hear stimming referred to as “stereotypy.”

Why do people with autism stim?

Stimming can take the form of hand flapping, verbal noises or tics, other movements such as rocking, and many more behaviors. There are several reasons stimming can occur in children and adults with autism.

Types of stimming

Let’s take a look at some of the main types of stimming and the possible triggers.

Hand flapping

Of all the stimming behaviors, hand flapping is perhaps one that is most noticeable in children with ASD. It is a type of repetitive behavior that can occur for short or long durations.

Hand flapping can present itself as a stimming behavior in many ways, including:

  • Moving fingers vigorously
  • Clicking fingers
  • Moving arms

Most of the time, hand flapping is nothing to worry about and the behavior can be triggered by any of the following:

  • Excitement
  • Nervousness
  • Fidgeting
  • Decreased body movements

The video below shows a child hand flapping while excited.

Hand flapping is only a cause for concern if it results in self-harm or gets in the way of the child’s daily living, through limiting the use of his/her hands.

Verbal and auditory stimming

Auditory stimming is any repetitive behavior that has the potential to impact a person’s sense of hearing or effective communication. It may include:

  • Repetitive speech (learned words such as song lyrics, movie lines, book passages)
  • Covering or tapping of ears, snapping fingers, or tapping on objects repeatedly
  • Humming, grunting, or high-pitched noises

Visual stimming

Visual stimming is a behavior that is connected to a person’s sense of sight. It may include:

  • Staring blankly at objects
  • Hand flapping (as described above)
  • Lining up objects such as toys
  • Blinking repeatedly
  • Turning lights on and off

Tactile stimming

Tactile stimming refers to repetitive behaviors connected to a person’s sense of touch. Examples may include:

  • Rubbing or scratching of hands or objects
  • Repetitive hand motions such as opening and closing fists
  • Tapping fingers repeatedly
  • Tactile defensiveness

Vestibular stimming

A vestibular stim is a behavior linked to a person’s sense of balance and movement. It may include:

  • Rocking back and forth or side to side
  • Twirling or spinning
  • Jumping repeatedly
  • Hanging upside down

Olfactory or taste stimming

Olfactory stimming centers around a person’s sense of taste and smell. It includes repetitive behaviors such as:

  • Smelling objects
  • Tasting unusual objects
  • Licking hand or objects

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Tips for reducing stimming behaviors

In most cases, stimming is not harmful and does not need to be stopped or suppressed. Karen Wang, author of the book My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities, believes that any stim eliminated by a caregiver is likely to be replaced with a new one.

Despite this, some parents might want to reduce a particular stimming behavior to avoid self injury or help maintain a level of social acceptability. For example, a caregiver might use an autism helmet to prevent a child from injuring him/herself when head banging.

If you are concerned for your child’s safety, here are some more ideas for reducing stimming behaviors.

Rule out medical conditions

Some medical conditions like ear infections, migraines, and physical pain can worsen stimming behaviors in autistic people, so it’s important to have this checked and addressed as soon as possible. It can be particularly hard to tell if a medical issue is present if your child is non-verbal, so it’s worth visiting your doctor regularly. If a medical condition is the reason for the stimming, it could reduce or stop completely with treatment and support.

Encourage exercise

Studies have shown physical activities can release tension and reduce stimming in people with autism. Engaging autistic people to exercise for a few minutes every day might help stop stimming to some extent.

Create a calm, safe environment

Ensure your home is a safe, quiet space in order to prevent stress and anxiety (which can often cause stimming). Your child’s home should be a place where most outside factors that trigger stimming are avoided, creating the best possible environment for the child.

Use stims as a reward

The use of a stimming behavior can be offered as a reward after a challenging activity. This might sound strange, but adopting this strategy means the child with autism has the freedom to express him/herself in a way that he/she chooses (and he/she might stim less throughout the rest of the day) (Moore, 2008).

Managing stimming through self-regulation

While there are many approaches parents and caregivers can take to help manage a child’s stims, the most effective might be to work towards instilling self-regulation. It is widely believed that stimming can reduce when a child learns to manage his/her emotions.

Autism stimming causes and management

Many children with autism have difficulty recognizing their own emotions as well as the feelings of others. Encouraging an autistic child to describe what he/she is feeling can therefore be challenging – but it is possible.

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AUTISM STIMMING: CAUSES, MANAGEMENT, AND TYPES

Here are some tips to help autistic children learn how to recognize and regulate emotions (Naseef, Ariel, 2006):

  • Explain to the child why he/she might be behaving a certain way. This is the first step towards helping him/her understand forms of emotion. Let the child know that others also experience these feelings, but there are ways to overcome them.
  • Understand the child’s sensitivities and unique reactions to situations and create an action plan. For example, if the child gets anxious in a noisy room, teach him/her to find a quiet place to calm down.
  • Prepare and inform. When a situation, perhaps a social event, is likely to occur which will cause the child stress, inform him/her beforehand and challenge the child to go through it with the promise of a reward when he/she succeeds.

Summing-up

Although stimming in children with autism can be confusing and worrying for parents who do not understand it, there is no need to seriously worry if your child has stimming behaviors.

If you are concerned that your child could be a danger to him/herself or others through stimming, there are steps you can take to reduce these behaviors. Your first step should be ruling out underlying medical conditions, and please remember that many children stim in excitement as well as when stressed.

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