Stimming is a behavior typically displayed by people with autism and sensory processing difficulties. It can present in a number of ways, including verbal and auditory stimming – discover the different types of stimming in our previous blog post. So what causes stimming?
Although there is not one specific cause of stimming, there are a few theories which suggest potential causes. These possible stimming causes are best unpacked in further detail to fully grasp the complexities of the likely reasons for stimming. The causes vary between individuals and depending on the severity of their autism.
What Causes Stimming?
One possible cause of stimming is linked back to understimulation. When it comes to autism, some may be under-sensitive to a particular sense. For example, if someone is under-sensitive to a sense, they may present the following signs or symptoms:
Sight – finding objects dark, sharp peripheral vision but blurred central vision, magnified primary object, poor depth perception demonstrated by problems throwing or catching
Sound – only hearing through one ear, not able to hear certain sounds, unfazed by crowded or noisy environments
Smell – no sense of smell or inability to smell potent odors, licking things to get a better idea of the flavor as they can’t rely on scent
Touch – displays a high pain threshold which can lead to self-harm, squeezes people or animals tightly, chews on objects or prefers heavy objects such as weighted blankets
Vestibular – seeks sensory input through rocking, swinging or moving
Proprioception – unaware of personal space, struggles to avoid obstructions
Taste – enjoys very hot or intense flavors and practises pica which is when someone eats non-edible items
The way stimming helps understimulation has been referenced by an article in Parents which shared an example of a woman who said stimming enabled her to feel parts of her body which had previously felt dulled.
An alternative cause of autism is often connected to overstimulation. In contrast to understimulation, some people stim because they feel overstimulated, which can lead to difficulties regulating emotions. In these cases, stimming can help focus and calm individuals. However, stimming can also become counterproductive and even harmful if taken to extremes. Those oversensitive may have the following experiences:
Sight – vision distortion, more comfortable to find a focal point than focus on a larger object, sensitive to light
Sound – magnified sounds, unable to filter out background noise from conversations
Taste – extra sensitive taste buds which are overwhelmed by strong flavors or unusual textures
Touch – pain when touched or sensitivity to certain clothing textures
Vestibular – struggle with sports activities, car sickness and stopping quickly
Proprioception – difficulties with fine motor skills so uses the whole body to make slight movements
Smell – overpoweringly intense smells such as perfumes and air fresheners
Some studies suggest that stimming helps release endorphins, helping individuals feel comforted. This might explain why individuals often stim when feeling when distress or anxiety.
We hope this article gives you a better understanding of the reasons behind stimming. For details examples of stimming, please see our previous post.