Stimming is a term that has developed from the phrase ‘self-stimulatory behaviours’. Stimming isn’t specific to autistic people but it is extremely common amongst us. There are different subtypes of stim, and there are different reasons for stimming.

The subtypes include auditory, tactile, visual, vestibular and olfactory, although there is a lot of overlap between these. It’s probably easier to give examples (always nice to have an excuse for a list. These could be:

rocking

making repetitive sounds

finger and toe joint pulling/clicking

sniffing

eye-rolling

hand-flapping (see my post on ‘Quiet Hands’)

clapping

jumping

pacing

tapping

rubbing or scratching at skin

humming

…and many many more!

The most positive reasons for stimming are for enjoyment and relaxation. The pure joy that our stim of choice can produce for us should not be underestimated and definitely shouldn’t be discouraged.

It is also very often a response to feeling stressed, overwhelmed, anxious or afraid, as it acts as a calming mechanism. Stimming can also occur with boredom. It is usually an unconscious act and often autistic people have different stims for different emotions or situations.

Whilst stimming gives autistic people such relief, because it is usually very repetitive, mechanical even, and doesn’t fit with ‘normal’ behaviour that neurotypical people are familiar with, it is often frowned upon and stared at, especially in public. This is very sad.

Since discovering my autistic identity, I have felt so empowered and free being able to ‘spin’ my figure of eight feet and finger rotations and I do it whenever I like. I never hold back, even though I know people notice it. On balance, what I gain from stimming outweighs my embarrassment. I don’t like being stared at, mouths agape, but I try really hard to see it as their problem. Perhaps this is one of the perks of a late diagnosis – we don’t feel the acute self-consciousness that we felt when we were younger.

Some stims can cause harm to the individual – head-banging, skin-picking etc – and some make life very awkward for the autistic person in certain environments – jumping or repetitively whooping all around the workplace, for instance, would probably be considered distracting for some colleagues! Whilst the most important thing is to change society’s attitude towards stimming, and increase education about it as a positive stress reliever, stims that produce negative outcomes for autistic people may lead to medication or therapy, often ABA or CBT, although all of these also have their controversies.