What is Stimming and How is it Related to Autism? 

What is Stimming and How is it Related to Autism, Steps to Progress

by | Mar 22, 2024 | Autism

“Stimming” is an abbreviation for “self-stimulatory behavior.”  Examples of self-stimulatory behaviors that many of us may engage in are twirling our hair, tapping pencils or fingernails on a table, and swinging our feet.  Everyone engages in self-stimulatory behaviors to some degree.      

Children and adults with autism may also engage in different types of self-stimulatory behaviors.  Stimming is considered a repetitive behavior and repetitive behaviors are one of the criteria that define autism.

Types of Self-Stimulatory Behavior in Children and Adults with Autism 

Self-stimulatory behaviors fall into several different categories:

  • Auditory (hearing and sound) – repeatedly playing a song, making a noise or vocalization, repetitive speech, covering and uncovering ears
  • Visual (sight) – staring at spinning objects, such as ceiling fans, moving fingers in front of eyes, lining objects up, repetitive blinking or turning lights on and off
  • Olfactory (smell or taste) – licking, smelling people or objects, tasting objects by putting them in their mouth
  • Tactile (using the sense of touch) – finger-tapping, skin-rubbing, opening and closing fists, stretching fingers
  • Vestibular (movement) – hand flapping, spinning, rocking, pacing, or jumping

Why do Children with Autism Engage in Stimming?  

Children with autism engage in stimming for a variety of reasons.  In addition, the autistic individual may exhibit the same behavior for different reasons at different times.

  • Emotional Regulation – One of the primary reasons for stimming is to regulate emotions.  Autistic children and adults may engage in stimming behavior when they feel overwhelmed or anxious.  Self-stimulatory behaviors may help them calm down.
  • Excitement – Autistic children and adults may also engage in stimming when they are excited.  They may flap their hands, jump up and down, or do other things just because they are excited.
  • Enjoyment – They may spin, repeat words or phrases, engage in visual stimming, or do other things repeatedly because they enjoy how it makes them feel.

When to Intervene 

We all engage in self-stimulatory behavior to some degree.  The only reasons to discourage an individual with autism from stimming is if the behavior is injurious to themselves or others, it’s disruptive to themselves or others, or it interferes with their learning or work.  

Some autistic individuals may engage in self-injurious behaviors such as head-banging or body-slapping.  It is theorized that they engage in these behaviors because it causes the release of specific chemicals in the brain that produce a pleasant feeling.  

Regardless of the reason, self-injurious behaviors warrant intervention.  Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) should be consulted for advice on specific interventions for self-injurious behaviors or behaviors that injure others.  

Types of Positive Intervention

Punishment should never be used as an intervention for self-stimulatory behaviors.  Examples of positive interventions that may be used are:

  • Give Them a Break – Sensory breaks throughout the day for activities such as jumping on a trampoline, exercises or running may help to reduce stimming.  Exercise in general has been shown to reduce self-stimulatory behaviors.  
  • Schedule a Time and Place for the Behavior – If the autistic child or adult engages in self-stimulatory behavior that might be disruptive to others in their environment, such as vocalizations, designate a time and place for them to go and vocalize or engage in that behavior as much as they would like.  Advise them to do it as much as they would like, but once they are finished, they will be expected to not engage in that behavior.  
  • Be Proactive – If it’s obvious that the autistic child or adult engages in self-stimulatory behavior in stressful situations, be aware when situations are becoming stressful and allow them to take a proactive break.
  • Replacement Behaviors – BCBAs can help children with autism adopt replacement behaviors, such as chewing on an oral motor toy instead of chewing on miscellaneous items, or playing with a fidget spinner or other toy as a replacement for another behavior. 

When intervention is needed for self-stimulatory behaviors our Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) and Registered Behavior Technicians (RBTs) will work with families to implement positive solutions.  We’re here to help!  

Partner with Steps to Progress

Understanding stimming and its significance in autism is essential for creating nurturing environments. Our team of ABA professionals in Houston provide expert guidance on positive approaches designed to empower your child and cultivate their unique strengths.

Ready to learn how to best support your autistic child? Partner with Steps to Progress and enroll in ABA therapy today

Related Posts

Ready to Get Started?

Give your child the skills needed to succeed with personalized ABA therapy.

Get Started