Stimming, or self-stimulatory behaviour, is defined as repetitive, rhythmic actions that a person engages in as a way of releasing emotional tension. Importantly, it isn’t exclusive to those on the spectrum! Everybody stims, including neurotypicals: bouncing your leg when you’re anxious or concentrating? Fidgeting? Jumping up and down with excitement? Chewing a pencil while you do your homework? That’s all stimming, and it helps you release internal tension.
The stimming of people on the spectrum differs only in that our behaviours (‘stims’) are often more visible. This is because of the way our brains work; for example, autistics are prone to taking in a lot more stimulation which can lead to a greater build up of tension which we need to release. As a result, our stimming can be more visible, and is often deemed less socially acceptable than the normalised behaviours which neurotypicals engage in. Unfortunately, this frequently leads neurotypicals to think that there is something wrong with us — they think we are being rude when we make loud noises, or flap our arms around.
In an effort to combat this misconception, I thought I’d give a review-style explanation of some of my own stims, explaining a bit about how they feel, and why I engage in different ones. Different people have different stims, but there are a few common ones, including hand flapping, yelling, rocking and clapping. Most of mine are quite discreet, but they are still essential for me in releasing emotional tension. I’ll talk a bit more at the end about what you can do about stims, and hopefully I’ll be able to explain why stimming (as long as it’s not self-injurious) generally shouldn’t be restricted.
Biting my nails — 5/10
This is something that I’ve done for so long that it almost doesn’t feel like a stim at all. I know loads of neurotypicals who do this too — it’s probably the most common kind of stimming behaviour. It falls under the category of chewing stims. Some autistics like to have chew toys, but I just bite my nails. I do it frequently when concentrating, especially when reading, but also when I’m anxious. This isn’t the best kind of stimming habit, and I’ve tried to stop several times without success, but as it’s such a common one most people don’t realise it.
Walking on tiptoes — 7/10
This is one that started when I was about six years old, and which I don’t do particularly often anymore, but which used to happen all the time: when I was anxious or getting overstimulated, I would walk on tip-toes. While it may not seem like a typical stim, because it’s not typically ‘repetitive’ or ‘rhythmic’, I think it falls into this category because it was something I did to self-soothe. When I was younger, dinosaurs were my special interest, and I especially liked velociraptors; walking on my tiptoes made me feel like I was walking like a raptor — poised and ready to run fast. Occasionally, the tiptoe walk still comes out in combination with other stims like spinning, usually when I’m excited — that just shows how stims can change their meanings over time: a stim that used to be for anxiety is now a stim for excitement.
Hand flapping — 6/10
This is one that I picked up when I was about 14, and which still comes out occasionally. It started during a period when I was quite stressed about a series of exams, and involves just flicking my wrist repeatedly. Usually it’s with my right hand, or it will be both hands at once. It’s one of my more forceful stims, and good for shaking out tension. But it gets tiring for my wrists very quickly, and often I will want to stop doing it and won’t feel able to, as though I’m stuck in the rhythm. This is the one which I usually end up sitting on my hands to try to stop, or having someone else hold my hand. It’s one of my less discreet stims, and I think it’s quite noticeable, especially once it’s been going for a while, and so I don’t tend to do it in public very often. When it first started manifesting at school, it came as quite a surprise to me, because it was the most forceful stim I had.
Wringing fingers — 8/10
This involves various motions like twisting my hands and interlocking my fingers — I do it when nervous or embarrassed. It’s a nice stim, good stretch, and doesn’t tire me out. I don’t do it very often, but I’ll sometimes also do it to try and avoid doing another stim, like hand-flapping, because it’s more discreet.
Running hands through hair — 6/10
It’s a stim I only do when seriously distressed, i.e. on the verge of a meltdown or during one — but as it goes it’s quite a good stim in and of itself: it’s not tiring, and I think it mainly comes from feeling attacked by all the sensory stimulation, so it gets my hair off my face. A lot of my stims do involve having my hand up around my head, almost protectively, so I guess that’s part of how I self-soothe.
Whirlybird stim — 7/10
This rather amusingly-named stim involved twirling my finger up around my head — as though I were twirling a strand of hair, except without the hair. It’s only appeared on one occasion, when I was at a noisy restaurant with my family and very overstimulated. It wasn’t in any way bad, but not the most discreet either, and was quite a surprise for my mum to see me doing such an obvious stim.
Swinging arms — 7/10
This is a good stim – one I will only do when I am alone and have a large space around me. It’s good for getting hormonal energy out, and usually accompanied by lots of sighing. It’s a big stim, and so it doesn’t come out very often.
Spinning / walking in a tight circle — 9/10
This one is often combined with pacing around, and it’s quite a rare stim as it only comes out for moments of very high emotional intensity. Usually it’s positive, for example when I’m anticipating something or I am excited and info-dumping about a special interest. The last time I did this was when a new video of my favourite channel uploaded (a once every three months occurrence); I paced around the living room, rambling about it non-stop to my sister, who had to follow me around the house because I wouldn’t stop moving while I talked, until eventually I came to a pause spinning in circles in the living room, after which I then folded myself up in the armchair. As such, I class this one as a happy stim. It’s often accompanied by hand flapping — I will walk in a circle and flap at the same time, which is very satisfying to me, although I do get dizzy!
Clicking — 9/10
This is a great stim. I do it for all sorts of reasons. It tires your fingers out a bit, but overall it’s very satisfying — I often click my fingers next to my ear as the audio stimulation is very good for grounding when in a noisy environment, which makes it slightly less discreet, but equally it can be done under the table purely for the physical sensation.
Single hand clapping — 9/10
Another great stim, where I hit all four fingers of one hand against my palm. Sometimes I’ll do it with both hand together. It tires out your hands quickly but makes a fantastically pleasing sound, like another variation of clicking — I would recommend it.
Clapping + mild rocking — 10/10
Not exclusively a happy stim — I also do it when nervous, but it’s a stim which flows very nicely and is very satisfying. I hit the base of my palm of my right hand against the palm of my left very lightly, swinging my arms and slightly rocking back and forth with the motion. It’s one which makes me feel a lot calmer, and is one of my few stims which is not just confined to my hands. Would recommend.
Now what about vocal stims, you may be thinking? These are very common for those on the spectrum, but I don’t actually have very many vocal stims, although there is one I can mention, which I picked up for a brief time as child.
It was a little low-pitched laugh, which first came up after a particularly loud evening in the waiting room at ballet when I was seven years old. I was on the floor drawing, and then just started making a laughing sound, very abrupt. By this time, I had had my chronic tic syndrome diagnosis (click here to read my mum’s account for more on that tic and my diagnosis) and my parents were concerned that this was a new vocal tic — which could mean that I had Tourette’s syndrome (motor and vocal tics together). However, this behaviour didn’t last long (only a few months) and we are not entirely sure whether it was a tic or a stim.
What’s the difference between a stim and a tic? There’s a lot of overlap, because both are ways of releasing tension, but generally tics can be differentiated in that they are less rhythmic, and are more involuntary and therefore harder to suppress as they happen far more subconsciously, although stims can also be hard to suppress. Suppressing a tic has been compared to the feeling of suppressing a sneeze, whereas suppressing a stim is more like holding your breath.
So, what can you do about stims? Well, if you are concerned about stimming behaviour, first of all, I would say to ask the question, is the behaviour harmful, to the stimming individual or others? If the answer is yes, then steps may need to be taken to try to inhibit it, or redirect that behaviour into one that is less harmful, for example instead of biting oneself, try holding an ice cube.
However, if the answer is no, the behaviour is not inherently harmful, and the only issue with the stim is that it’s not socially acceptable, or it embarrasses you, then I encourage you to look at what the stim is actually expressing. For some stims, like happy ones, consider that there is no need for them to be repressed. Aspies and others on the spectrum may not express our overwhelming happiness in traditional ways, but there is something joyous for us in happy-stimming, and I encourage parents and carers to try their hardest to look at stims for what they are — expressions of emotions — where the issue is not with the stim itself, but with the society that is not open to allowing these stims.
If, however, you are concerned about a stim that you think is happening because the aspie in question is distressed, then I recommend trying to remove the source of that stress. This can sometimes be difficult, as the source of stress can be hard to pinpoint — it may be something as simple as a buzzing lightbulb that only the autistic individual can hear. In some cases, it may not be possible to change the environment to better accommodate the autistic individual. In these cases, it’s often better just to let them stim. This allows them to release their internal tension.
Obviously, though in some cases, it is a little more nuanced. A lot of my stims can be physically tiring —should we inhibit them? For me, I have the option to make the choice to ask my parents to hold my hands for me to help me settle down my stims when I would rather stop them. In these cases, it’s a question of valuing the cost of physical exertion over the release of emotional tension, and that’s a decision that will vary from person to person.
I hope this has been helpful, and please leave any questions in the comments — I will be happy to answer them as best I can, or re-direct you to other resources on this subject! And thanks for reading! If there’s anything you would like to see from this blog, leave suggestions in the comments — I need ideas! Likes and follows are also greatly appreciated. Thanks again!