Boy stimming by using a fidget spinner

Never heard of stimming? You probably do it…

September 6, 2017

Never heard of ‘stimming’ before? Don’t worry, we’re here to help explain what this word actually means. Who knows, you may be more familiar with it than you realised…

Ever bitten your nails before an interview, jiggled your knee nervously, twirled your hair around your finger, clicked your pen in a meeting, or anxiously paced around a room? Well, these are all examples of ‘stimming’.

Sometimes referred to as self-stimulatory behaviour, stimming is: ‘repetitive or unusual body movement or noise’.

For most people, these ‘stims’ tend to be occasional, and to some degree we’re able to control them (you wouldn’t bite your nails in a job interview would you?).

But, for some people with a disability such as autism, stimming can be harder to control.

How is stimming different for people with autism?

Stimming is most commonly seen in children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder.

While most of us stim from time to time, the biggest difference for people with autism is the type, frequency and obviousness of the behaviour.

Common stims for people with autism include hand flapping, rocking, flicking or snapping fingers, bouncing or jumping, pacing, head banging, spinning objects, and repeating words.

Some people with autism may stim a lot, others only a little. Some may ‘grow out’ of the behaviour, while others may stim throughout their lives.

We’re not sure why people with autism stim

While it’s pretty common, stimming still isn’t fully understood, even by experts.

It’s believed that people with autism stim for different reasons such as when they are stressed, excited, anxious, or overwhelmed.

Some people may stim because they are oversensitive to their environment – and it is a calming distraction that helps them to focus and reduce sensory overload. Others may stim because they are under sensitive to their environment and are looking to stimulate their ‘underactive’ senses.

Stimming can also be a habit, like whistling when walking down the street.

Stimming isn’t always a problem

While sometimes there is a stigma around stimming, it can actually help people with autism manage challenging situations. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.

On the flipside: if it becomes distracting, creates social problems, causes physical harm to the person or others, or interferes with daily life, then it may need to be managed.

For example, if a child is absorbed in watching their fingers instead of listening to their teacher, they may be missing out on learning about the lesson or developing their social skills.

For some people as well, stimming can cause injury – such as severe hand-biting or head banging.

It is possible to manage stimming

If you think that stimming is a cause for concern for you or your child, there are techniques which can help to manage it (although it may not be possible to eliminate altogether).

Often, the first step is to talk to a health professional who can help to understand the reason behind it – remember behaviour such as stimming can be a form of communication.

Once you understand, you can explore different ways to manage it, such as providing alternative forms of stimulation, adjusting environmental factors, reducing anxiety, or increasing physical activity.

‘Stimtoys’ do exist… and you’ve almost certainly seen one

Heard of the Fidget Spinner? Well, it’s a huge craze that swept into classrooms earlier this year. It’s basically a toy you can stim with it – a device on bearings that you hold between your thumb and finger and when you flick it, it spins for ages.

Fidget spinners were so popular, that by May this year, they accounted for 17% of all online toy sales.

While it may seem strange that kids would be encouraged to play with toys in class, the reason for this was some people said the Fidget Spinner had the capacity to calm and focus kids who have anxiety, ADHD and autism.

But do they actually help?

While some parents do report positive effects for their child, anecdotal evidence (people sharing their experiences), is different to scientific evidence (formal studies done by the experts). And so far, there’s no actual scientific evidence to support these marketing claims.