What is Autism Stimming?

Reviewed by:
Emily Schuman, M.Ed, BCBA

September 7, 2022

Stimming is short for self-stimulatory behavior. It may also be referred to as stereotyped or repetitive behavior. Researchers have recognized repetitive behaviors as being a key characteristic of autism since it was first described. Stimming remains a key part of an autism diagnosis.

Stimming is not limited only to individuals with autism. Repetitive behaviors and movements are a common part of development for everyone. Scientists have observed babies moving their arms and legs in stereotyped patterns that may help with motor development. 

Most people have a stim of some kind, regardless of whether they identify as neurotypical or not. Behaviors such as hair twirling, foot tapping, nail biting, or knuckle cracking are all stims. Repetitive behaviors are also common in other disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Rett syndrome. 

Even though everyone does it, self-stimulatory behaviors in autism may interfere with daily life activities or prevent learning. This does not mean that stimming is a negative thing. Stimming can be a useful way for people with autism to cope with the world around them. It can help people to show strong emotions or manage sensory overload. 

Stimming behaviors come in different forms, and some may happen more often than others. Understanding different types of stims can help shine a light on why it might be happening.

What types of stims are there? 

The type of stimming performed is different for each individual. Self-stimulatory behaviors are often linked to one of the five senses and movement. Stimming can help self-regulate stimulation. Someone who is overstimulated may stim to block out other sensory input. A person who is understimulated may stim for extra sensory input.

We will talk about some examples of self-stimulatory behaviors. 

Visual stimming

Visual stimming involves repetitive actions associated with eyesight or the eyes. 

  • Looking at lights
  • Turning lights on and off
  • Blinking rapidly
  • Staring at spinning or moving objects
  • Waving hands or fingers in front of the eyes 

Auditory stimming

Auditory stimming relates to the sense of hearing. It can involve listening to sounds or making sounds

  • Listening to the same thing over and over
  • Making vocal sounds
  • Echolalia (repeating another person's speech) 
  • Tapping ears
  • Snapping fingers
  • Humming 

Tactile stimming

Tactile stimming involves the sense of touch. 

  • Rubbing the skin with hands or other objects
  • Stroking fabrics or other objects with different textures
  • Scratching

Gustatory and olfactory stimming

Gustatory stimming relates to the sense of taste and the mouth. Olfactory stimming is about the sense of smell. These two senses are closely related. 

  • Licking or biting people
  • Licking or chewing objects
  • Smelling people 
  • Chewing things that are not edible
  • Grinding teeth 

Vestibular and proprioceptive stimming

Vestibular is related to a person’s sense of balance. Proprioception is your awareness of where your body is and what it is doing.

  • Rocking
  • Swinging
  • Jumping
  • Pacing
  • Spinning
  • Rolling 
  • Cracking knuckles

How to provide support

Stimming can help a person with autism manage overstimulation and express joy. However, some stimming behaviors can be harmful or dangerous. Stims such as biting, scratching, or banging the head against the wall can cause harm or injury. Stimming can also increase caretaker stress.

Find out why stimming occurs

Stimming happens for a reason. Discovering the motivation behind stimming behavior can help us understand if and how it should be reduced. 

Stimming behavior could be a symptom of a medical problem. For example, a child may engage in more frequent stimming when they are in pain. Problems like headaches and ear infections may trigger stims to reduce pain. It seems counterintuitive, but behaviors such as headbanging may temporarily relieve pain.

People with autism may use stimming behaviors to manage their sensory environment. Stimming might provide an escape from overstimulating surroundings or provide more stimulation when needed. 

Stimming can also be used to express and regulate emotions. Stims can relieve emotions like anxiety or communicate joy. 

How to manage stimming

It may be necessary to decrease the amount of time spent stimming. Reducing stimming may be important if it is causing injury to self or others, causing significant stress, or interferes with activities like learning. 

Children may benefit from taking scheduled breaks throughout the day that give them time to engage in any stimming behaviors that feel good to them. 

Exercise and physical activity can help decrease how often a child stims. It may also be helpful to incorporate proprioceptive stims, like jumping, into a regular schedule. 

It may help to manage the sensory environment. If stimming is due to sensory overload, strategies like decreasing lights and loud noises may reduce the need for stimming. 

Another strategy to reduce stimming is to provide an attractive alternative to the stim. For example, a stress ball or fidget toy can replace hand flapping. Scented lotions can replace smelling other people.

In conclusion

There are many types of self-stimulatory behaviors. Stimming commonly involves one or more of the five senses. Stimming in autism is a common way to regulate emotions and the environment. Stimming happens for a reason and discovering the reason can help uncover individual needs. 

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