Also known as self-stimulatory behavior, stimming is a common occurrence in people with autism. It can be used to describe repetitive movements such as rocking, jumping or flicking fingers.
Each individual is different, however stimming usually occurs due to a lack or overload of sensory information from the environment.
Someone may engage in stimming behavior due to:
- Understimulation- With autism, some people may be under-sensitive to a specific sense. For example, Parents recently featured an article about the causes of stimming. It included an explanation from an adult with autism, who said that it helped her to fully feel parts of her body which felt dulled before engaging in the activity.
- Overstimulation-in contrast, some behaviors may be the result of overstimulation or the person being unable to control their emotions. It can help to calm and focus individuals, however if they are experiencing negative emotions then more physical stims may become destructive.
The Different Types of Stimming
Typically, self-stimulatory behaviors can be attributed to one or more our senses:
Repetitive movements that catch the eye, such as ceiling fans, screen savers and flipping through books are all types of visual stimming. They can attract the attention of the person, causing them to stare at the object for prolonged periods of time.
Auditory stimming can involve the person repeatedly listening to the same sounds or making the same noises. For example, someone engaging in auditory stimming might replay to the same song time and time again, or tap and click their fingers.
Stimming can also manifest in a tactile nature, where people may repeatedly scratch, grind teeth, bite their fingernails etc. This type of self-stimulatory behavior has the potential to cause distraction or harm to the person or to others, and it may need to be redirected (if possible) to squeezing a stress ball, hugging or sitting on a vibrating sensory cushion, for example.
Repeating the same words, sounds or noises without an obvious cause are common examples of verbal self-stimulatory behavior. Verbal types of stimming can be quite hard to notice, especially if the person has a milder form of autism.
TASTE & SMELL
Stimming that involves tasting and smelling can manifest as licking things or placing body parts within mouths. You might also see actions such as sniffing other people or animals.
VESTIBULAR & PROPIOCEPTIVE
Vestibular stimming refers to repetitive actions to do with balance, whereas proprioception is more to do with the person’s understanding of where they are and what they’re doing. Proprioception is the ability which allows us to control limbs without directly looking at them, and it is thought that autism can dull this.
Spinning and rocking are both common examples of vestibular stimming, whereas proprioceptive stimming may involve throwing items, pacing or jumping.
Is Stimming Beneficial?
There are many different views on stimming, and it can be quite a controversial topic. Some think that it could be detrimental to learning, whereas others state that it helps with focus.
However,some forms of stimming are more destructive to a person’s health and development than others. Activities where the person is causing harm to themselves, such as banging their head or scratching their skin can be very unhealthy, not to mention distracting them from their job or schoolwork.