Why autistic people stim?

Stimming (or self-stimulation behavior) is the repetitive body movement, verbal statement or feeling of a texture. The thing is, everyone stims. The question remains why do autistic people stim, why does everyone stim, and what exactly does stimming look like?

What is stimming?

You might remember that time you were nervous and bit your lip, or the time you tapped your pencil on the table anxious to answer a test question. Those are but two examples of how a neurotypical stims.

Stimming can look quite different in an autistic person. An autistic person might flap their arms, rub objects, repetitively move their fingers in front of their eyes, squeeze their hands over their ears, or watch wheels go back and forth. Others might rock their bodies, lick objects, smell themselves or others. The list goes on and on. Check the **** Yeah, Stimming! for a comprehensive list of various stims.

Happy autistic people stim

Stimming because you’re happy. Happy flapping from the wonderful Amythest (neurodiversity blogger)

Why do autistic people stim?

Autistic people stim for various reasons but the central theme remains the same. As Temple Grandin so eloquently put it:

Stimming behaviors self-soothe and helps to regain emotional balance. – Temple Grandin

We also asked several other autistic people about stimming.

Why do you stim?

  • It relieves anxiety
  • It releases energy
  • Reduce sensory overstimulation
  • Helps me focus
  • Helps me relax (like clear-mind meditation)

When do you stim?

  • I have overwhelming emotions
  • Nervous
  • Feel overtaxed
  • I’m thinking really hard
  • Boredom

How should we deal with stimming?

One issue is that a few professionals believe stimming is a deviant behavior. This has come out by an old view in behavior analysis to extinguish all behavior that was deemed “not typical” in autistic people. The problem with behavior therapy is that you can reduce any behavior you want. A good behaviorist has the responsibility to determine what behaviors are appropriate and which aren’t.

After reading the list of reasons why autistic people stim, it is obvious that autistic people have a function to their stimming.


Does stimming have a negative impact on learning?

Again, after reading the list. Do you think it can help, or does it negatively impact learning? Many autistics believe it would actually improve on learning and emotional development.

Obviously, there are limits. If a child stims for 12 hours a day, the child’s stimming might have a negative effect on learning. The issue isn’t with the stimming but with not taking the time learning new skills.

For the same reason, you wouldn’t want a child play video games for 12 hours since that might have a negative impact on their education. Should you then never allow a child to play video-games? In my opinion, no.

An autistic child should not be allowed to stim all day but at the very least be provided with some time to do so.  Autistic children should be allowed to stim to relieve their anxieties, reduce their energy, control overstimulation and regain emotional balance.

Won’t stimming disturb others in a classroom?

This is another common concern. Just like a child playing on their phones in class, it could disturb others. The issue isn’t the stimming itself but whether the stimming actually does disturb the class. Perhaps, the child can be guided to stim in such a way not to disturb others.

If the child squeezing, perhaps the child should be giving a squishy ball to play around with during class or an object in the desk to rub. In this way, it is minimal and does not disturb others.

Won’t stimming socially isolate the autistic person?

Another concern is whether stimming is a behavior that is socially isolating. Won’t others steer away from a stimming child? Maybe. Other children might not engage a child who is stimming because it seems strange to them. Again, the issue isn’t about the stimming itself — everyone stims. The issue is about educating children about neurodiversity, about difference and acceptance. People who were gay were once heavily discriminated against, while it is becoming trendier and trendier to have gay people on TV.

I commend sesame street for including an autistic character to educate children about accepting difference. Well done.

So what do you think…

To stim or not to stim? That is the question.