Stimming: What is it and why does my child with Autism stim?

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What is stimming?

Stimming, stims, or self-stimulatory behaviours are the repetition of body movements, sounds, or moving objects.

There are many different ways people can stim. These include, but are not limited to;

  • Visual: fast and repetitive blinking, shaking hands in front of their eyes, dropping things in front of their face, watching spinning objects, staring at bright lights, turning lights on and off, quickly flipping through the pages in a book, lining up objects.
  • Auditory: listening to the same noise (e.g. rewind music/videos to hear the same section again and again, or tap their fingers on the table), make vocal sounds, click fingers, tap their ears.
  • Tactile / touch: scratching, pinching, biting, rubbing skin, touching different textures, moving eyes upwards or to the side, head banging, teeth grinding.
  • Taste / smell: Licking or chewing, sniffing hands or objects.
  • Verbal: Echolalia (repeating sounds, words, or phrases without other purpose), scripting (repeating lines from movies or books), non-meaningful sounds such as squealing. 
    Note: stimming is not the only reason for echolalia and scripting.
  • Movement (vestibular and proprioceptive): rocking, swinging, jumping, spinning, tiptoeing, running, banging into things, hand flapping.
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Why do children with Autism stim?

Children may engage in stimming to help with sensory processing, to either increase stimuli, or to help decrease stimuli. For example, if a child feels overwhelmed with the stimuli in their environment such as too much noise, they may stim to help calm their system.

Stims also often occur at the same time a child may feel a strong emotion such as excitement, or anxiety. For example, if a child is excited by bubbles being blown or singing their favourite song, they may stim. Similarly, if they are upset that they cannot find their favourite toy or the routine has changed, they may stim.

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Should I stop my child stimming?

Short answer: No. Not unless the self-stimulatory behaviour is impacting learning, or harmful to your child or others e.g. biting, self harming.

Long answer: First, a lot of children with Autism will naturally reduce their own stimming behaviours as they get older. Second, a child will be using stims for a reason. Stopping any self-stimulatory behaviour without replacing it with another one (that is possibly safer, less distracting, or more socially appropriate) could be harmful.

Many adults with Autism have voiced that suppressing stims can be stressful and affect their thinking process, which can then impact learning. However, many have also said the desire to fit in with peers made them try to suppress their stimming behaviours themselves. Talking about ways your child can respond about their stims to other children at school, or other more ‘socially appropriate’ ways to get their sensory needs met can be positive for older children.

It is important to identify what sensory need your child is wanting when they start stimming. It is also important to distinguish between a stim, and a communication attempt e.g. biting when the iPad is taken away may not be a stim, but might be your child letting you know they are unhappy.

Remember: we all stim on occasion. Some people play with their hair, others tap their foot or doodle in a meeting.

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What can I do at home?

Observe when, why, and how your child stims. Think about if this could be harmful to them or others in any way. If you think it could be, contact Acorn Autism for support.

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What next?

The above information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as appropriate, with a qualified professional.

Our team at Acorn Autism can support your child with sensory processing and regulation, enabling them to adjust and control their energy level, emotions, behaviours, and attention.

If you feel as though your child’s stims are harmful or inappropriate, our team is able to work with you and your child to identify the reason for the stim, and work towards reducing or replacing the behaviour to ensure your child still gets the stimulation they require.

Please contact Acorn Autism for more information.