Autism Series XII

Autism Series XII: What You Should Know About Stims

Autism Series XII: What You Should Know About Stims

A self-stimulatory or stimming behavior (which are often called as ‘Stims’) are specific, repetitive behaviors of the body – an action, movement or sound. Individuals within the Autism spectrum disorder often stim. Other disorders in which stimming would be seen include – anxiety disorders, Tourette’s, Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCD) etc.

In this article, we will focus on stimming related to individuals with Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Stims are considered socially inappropriate and irrelevant. The degree of stimming would vary based on the type of disorder, its severity and/ or the sensory need/ difference the individual has.

Each one of us may ‘stim’ in our own way. For instance, when I am in deep thought – I may twirl may hair with my finger or drum my fingers on a table. This seems harmless and often goes unnoticed by my family members or friends surrounding me.

What a stim looks like to an onlooker.

When a passerby sees an individual (with ASD) stim, the first thought or question that pops up is – ‘Isn’t that a behavior odd!’ Or ‘Why is s/he doing that?’

Since the behaviors remain socially awkward or inappropriate they seem meaningless to the viewer.

A child (with Autism) may be seen to rock vigorously in his chair while being seated in class (during a lesson). A teacher, fellow students or even a passerby may find the behavior odd and quite distracting. They would assume it to not serve any purpose to the learning process; but rather hinder it. However, this is not true.

A stim or self-stimulatory behavior, as odd as it seems, is a way in which the individual with ASD would bring meaning to their environment or a way in which they have learnt to deal with the requirements of the environment.

Types of stims.

Self-stimulatory behaviors can be of many types – Visual, Verbal, Tactile, Proprioceptive or even related to smell and/or taste

A visual stim may include enjoying looking at light changing when running fingers in front of the face.

A verbal stim can be such as -repeating sentences or songs (humming or singing them) that are enjoyable or calming to the child.

stimming visual

Tactile stimming can include running fingers over a soft material over and over again or enjoying hugging someone really tightly.

When stims are related to taste or smell a child may like to place objects in the mouth to ‘feel’ the different tastes or even smell every item that is around him/ her, which may include another person’s head or a toy block being played with.

Stimulatory behavior can be quite varied. It varies not only from one individual to another but can also vary within one individual based on the situation they are, their comfort level to the situation or demand within the environment etc. Several factors come into play.

Some stims can be mild and even harmless – such as humming to self, rocking on a chair gently etc. However, few can be harmful or vigorous such as biting own hands or banging head on the floor, spinning in quite a vigorous manner (unaware of obstacles or people around).

Why does an individual with ASD / Autism stim?

The exact reason for stims is not completely understood, however, there is clarity from researchers that says that stims are an offshoot of specific sensory processing issues.

Individuals/children with ASD may suffer from a deviance or difference in various areas of sensory processing. Such as they may prefer tight hugs or alternately ‘no hugs’. Some issues with sensory processing may include ‘feeling’ too little of their body or getting ‘too much’ stimulation from the environment (too many sounds, sights and smells all together!).

Stimming why

When there is so much chaos for the individual to process, they will resort to ways to calm themselves or handle the situation. For instance, they will flap hands or twirl their body to –‘sense’ their limbs or body. They may rock or hum loudly in a manner to ‘shut out’ the many things happening around them (the sights, sounds, smells). This helps them calm down and thereby ‘function’ rather than have a meltdown!

When you are anxious before an important interview, you may pace on the floor or even hum a tune to ‘calm’ your nerves and be ‘in control’ of the situation and your feelings! Isn’t that your ‘stim’?

The actions or ‘stims’ may seem inappropriate to the situation and the people around – but it is essential for the individual with processing issues.

This may lead to them not understanding that a certain behavior is ‘not socially appropriate’.

When facing an interviewer, our stim of ‘pacing’ the floor would be stopped. We may twiddle our thumbs instead. We’re still stimming – but we ‘know’ what’s socially ‘appropriate’ and can read the social cues from our interviewer to better them still!

What can be done about the ‘stim’?

When a caregiver is with a child or individual who is stimming, the first natural reaction would be is to ‘stop the behavior’. This comes from understanding what is ‘socially acceptable’. However, is this an effective manner to deal with stims? The answer is – NO.

Injurious behaviors (self-injurious or destructive) must definitely be stopped. The individual should and others around should be safe. In these situations, specific psychological tools and techniques must be applied to assist the individual to overcome such behaviors and be safe in the long run.

Stims do require a step by step intervention. The following needs to be addressed:

1. Understand the underlying sensory processing needs.

A therapist with sensory integration (SI) therapy can assess and provide intervention for the same. Intervention for sensory processing differences requires ‘regular’ and ‘consistent’ input of activities for the individual. An occupational or speech therapist trained in SI is ideal.

2. Calming the child / changing the environment.

If the stim is due to overstimulation or anxiety of the environment or something within the environment, it is best to change the environment or calm the child down. Each child may have their own way to calm down – a familiar adult being around, calming words (I’m here with you), allowing them to complete the stim (without harming themselves or others), taking them out of the environment (take them to the open area instead of the closed classroom), touching a familiar texture (a favourite bunny rabbit toy) etc.

3. Make the stim – meaningful or socially appropriate.

Stims seem odd because they are ‘socially inappropriate’. As the individual sensory needs are being addressed, it is equally important to shift the inappropriate behavior to a meaningful one, or one that is ‘less obvious’. This will help the child to continue to have a means to ‘calm him/ herself’. Your therapist can assist you in thinking of different ways to work on this.

stimming make it meaningfulThe market has several stim toys that can be used (fidget spinner, stimming cube etc.). Otherwise, make a toy or item that the individual can use for stimming (a balloon filled with beans that can be held easily in the hand etc.).

4. Using stories

Social stories are wonderful ways to get an individual to understand ‘where’ and ‘when’ stimming is appropriate. An individual who can follow the stories can benefit from them. They will have to be individualized to the (sensory) need(s), the environment and stim that person has. Talk to your speech therapist for more info on this.

A school of thought believes that we should look beyond the individual’s oddities (be it stims or others) and look at the ‘person’ as a whole! In this manner, society should accept the individual with ASD as s/he is. With stims (not injurious, of course) or without stims. That would be an ideal world, in my opinion- a beautiful one! 🙂


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Tanushree Chandhok
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(1 Comment)

  • Mano Ramasamy

    Excellent ,,,,,short n full of informative

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