When most people think about stimming, they think about vocal tics and flapping hands. But what does autistic stimming look like, really? Please, let me, an actual autistic person, tell you about it!
What Is Stimming?
The word "stim" is short for "self-stimulatory," and refers to any repetitive behavior, like movement, or making a sound, that is comforting to the person enacting the behavior. Stimming is common in folks who are autistic and/or ADHD, but everyone stims. It's just that some stims are more obvious than others.
What Does Autistic Stimming Look Like?
Well, vocal tics and flapping hands! A lot of autistic people do enjoy these specific stims; they can be very fun. But a lot of us have been trained to not stim very obviously in public, because neurotypical people often react poorly to it.
(If you're a neurotypical person, please don't judge us for stimming! And teach your kids that stimming is normal!)
So, what does autistic stimming look like? Some examples:
- We use tactile stimming, like touching something that feels interesting to us
- Many people chew specialized necklaces or even sometimes just on their fingers or hair
- We like to look at shiny or reflective objects
- We rock, spin, or swing our entire bodies
- We tap our knees repetitively
- We sing, hum, repeat words or phrases, or make other noises (echolalia)
- We create a pushing motion on our bodies in some way
I am a swayer! I sway constantly when I'm standing still and often won't notice it. I also tap my toes all the time, clench my hands into fists, hum, sing, and repeat funny lines from TV shows I like.
The thing is, everybody stims, whether you are neurotypical or neurodivergent; it's just whether you've noticed that that's what you're doing. If you tap your foot when you're anxious, or pace, you're stimming - enacting a repetitive motion to soothe yourself during a moment of stress.
It is true that autistic people and ADHD people often have more disorganized nervous systems to start with, so sometimes we stim more often, or with bigger movements, than neurotypical people do.
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What Do I Do if My Kid Stims?
Stimming is not bad. It can be soothing, calming, reduce anxiety, and help organize the nervous system.
So, the first question is, is your child hurting themselves or anyone else by stimming? Stims like head-banging can cause injury and do deserve some intervention. The best thing to do is NOT to try to stop your child from stimming. Rather, redirect them to stim in a safer manner!
One of our children used to head-bang in order to fall asleep at night, and would occasionally bruise themselves. We moved them out of the crib and into a softer pack-n-play.
Because the softer material created less impact, the head-banging no longer served their self-soothing need, and they developed other, safer ways of self-soothing and stopped head-banging. Then we were able to move them back into a crib, and later into a bed.
We have one child who likes to stim by making sudden, loud noises, and one child who is very sensitive to loud noises. We have ear mufflers available for everyone, but it is also okay to create reasonable rules and boundaries around stims.
For example, we do not allow loud noises on the main floor, because some of us are working, reading, or cooking. Loud noises are allowed in the basement or in our child's bedroom at any time. Our child has safe, available places to stim if they choose, without impacting their sibling negatively.
If your child isn't hurting themselves or anyone else, then please just let them stim! Forcing someone to suppress stims only heightens their anxiety and stress. Only redirect a stim if it's a safety issue, or if the child expresses, independently, that they don't like what their body is doing.
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