The term “stimming” is a shortened reference to self-stimulatory behaviors. Examples of these in autism include rocking, spinning, hand-flapping, tapping, vocal sounds, repeating words or phrases, and others. People without autism stim too! Are you a hair twirler, foot jiggler, or pencil tapper? But there are differences in the types, quantities, and circumstances of stimming that occur in autism. Why is it done?
Experts offer varying opinions as to the functions of stimming, but it seems to serve many purposes. We know that sensory differences (too much or too little) often exist in autism. These include senses beyond the usual five, such as the proprioceptive sense (awareness of the position and movement of the body) and vestibular sense (which affects balance). Many experts believe that stimming serves to help stimulate senses in some situations, while helping to handle sensory overload in others. In addition, stimming might occur in reaction to a range of emotions, whether the feelings are exciting and pleasant or distressing and upsetting. Stimming behaviors can help a person cope with a variety of situations.
An article by Sarah Deweerdt provides relevant discussion and background, as well as autistic persons’ input regarding what stimming does for them (see link at end). She reports their claims that stimming can calm anxiety, help with focus or concentration, or help with body awareness. Deweerdt writes, “The same behavior may serve different purposes in different people, or even in the same person at different times, depending on the situation or mood.” ¹
We saw that in David! For years, what we dubbed “chit-chat” was a type of stimming he utilized. He would repeat words, phrases, or lines from shows over and over. It increased when he was stressed or bored, and also when he was excited. Chit-chat helped him focus—he did it while doing homework or classwork. It provided a variety of functions, and it meant different things under different circumstances. For me, it was a helpful barometer to his feelings or stress level. It clued me in as to when a break or other intervention was needed.
Should stimming be stopped? If it is not harmful or disruptive, most modern-day sources I explored say no. But in certain situations, the behavior may need to be managed or substituted with something else that helps in a similar way. For David, not only was his chit-chat distracting to others, but it also hurt him socially for appearing so weird, so we (and professionals) worked with him on limits, as well as when and how to express it. Over a period of years, he learned an alternate method which gave him similar relief and contentment. He also found different ways to help with focus and sensory discomforts. Dave will share some of these in our next blog, next month.