There are several opinions on self-stimulatory behavior, also known as “stimming”. This article considers the first-hand view of an autistic person.
I have heard varying definitions and reasons why self-stimulatory behaviors occur in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The explanations are frequently from those in a position of treating or serving the ASD community, instead of coming from an individual who is diagnosed with autism.
I am not discounting the many years of medical expertise and knowledge from professionals, instead, I’m asking parents and professionals to also consider the point of view (POV) of someone on the spectrum. I am a young adult with autism who was first diagnosed around the age of three. I share my perspective on this topic with the hope of shedding some light and understanding on this puzzling subject.
What is self-stimulatory behavior?
To better understand self-stimulatory behavior, we must first attempt to define it. As a simple explanation, self-stimulatory behavior is an action that someone does repeatedly. For example, pacing, twirling hair, spinning things, lining up objects, rocking, biting their fingernails, flapping their arms, etc. Not only do these behaviors present in different ways, but the level of intensity also varies.
Some individuals can spend hours engaging in repetitive behavior, while others may do it sporadically. My POV is that every child diagnosed with ASD (and even those without a diagnosis) may engage in some form of self-stimulatory behavior.
Why does self-stimulatory behavior occur?
Some people call it stimming. For me and many of my friends (who also have ASD), self-stimulatory behavior occurs because people on the spectrum may be “sensitive” to the world around them. These repetitious behaviors can help soothe and provide a sense of relief.
Stimming may calm a person down because it allows them to focus on just one thing and helps to take away some of the sensory overload they may be experiencing. In my case, stimming aids in managing anxiety. Believe me, there can be a lot of sensory things going on!
For others, stimming may be an opportunity to get into a rhythm that allows them to express a feeling of enjoyment. Another reason why stims may happen is because people with autism are trying to feel comfortable in their environments. My POV is that everyone is different and has their own unique sensory needs, so the reasoning behind stimming will also be highly individualized.
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What are other reasons why people with autism stim?
There are so many different POVs on this topic. If you do not believe me, Google it and you will find out. I have heard some people say that they think a person with autism stims because they do not have good social (or play) skills. This was sort of true for me.
When I was younger, I did not really know how to play or socialize all that well. My therapists spent many hours teaching me how to play independently and with other kids. Some self-stimming behaviors stayed with me and I continue to do them today when I am bored or anxious, but others have stopped.
I have learned to replace some stims with other behaviors and have learned how to change some of my self-stims, so they do not look too obvious when I do them in public. I cannot explain why some are easier to control than others.
Is self-stimulatory behavior ever a problem?
There may be circumstances where certain stims are uncontrollable, occur excessively in inappropriate settings, or can harm a person. Examples of problematic or harmful stimming can include hair pulling, biting, hitting oneself, hitting the head against something in a harmful way, or picking/nail-biting to the point of injury. My POV is that dangerous stims should be interrupted and stopped. Remember, not everyone on the spectrum does harmful stimming.
What can parents do about self-stimulatory behavior?
As a parent, it is important to determine why your child is self-stimming and if there is anything you can teach them to do instead. Over the years, my family and therapists have helped me manage my stimming to ensure that it did not become a problem for me in public (like when I am volunteering, out shopping, or at the movies).
You might have a different POV on stimming. Some people believe that you should never let people stim and others believe you should not stop a person from stimming. Well, if that is what you think, then okay, that is your POV. But do not forget to ask the person with autism what it is doing for them.
So, my POV on self-stimulatory behavior is that it may be a coping mechanism that can serve a variety of purposes. It really depends on the person you know!
This article was featured in Issue 126 – Romantic Relationships and Autism