Stimming is a repetitive body movement that self-stimulates one or more senses in a regulated manner. Stimming is known in psychiatry as a "stereotypy", a continuous movement.
Stimming is one of the symptoms listed by the DSM IV for autism, although it is observed in about 10 percent of non-autistic children. A few autistic people have no stims. Common forms of stimming among autistic people include hand flapping, body spinning or rocking, lining up or spinning toys or other objects, echolalia, perseveration, and repeating rote phrases. 
There are many theories about the function of stimming, and the reasons for its increased incidence in autistic people. For hyposensitive people, it may provide needed nervous system arousal, releasing beta-endorphins. For hypersensitive people, it may provide a "norming" effect, allowing the person to control a specific sense, and is thus a soothing behavior. It can also serve as a way to communicate, or to calm down. Stimming is a natural behavior that can improve emotional regulation and prevent meltdowns in stressful situations.
|Visual||Flapping hands, blinking and / or moving fingers in front of eyes; staring repetitively at a light|
|Auditory||Making vocal sounds; snapping fingers|
|Tactile||Scratching; rubbing the skin with one's hands or with an external object|
|Vestibular||Moving body in rhythmic motion; rocking front and back or side-to-side|
|Gustatory||Licking body parts; licking an object|
|Olfactory||Smelling objects or hands; other people|
The above is only an illustrative list, and there are many different ways to stim.
Benefits of Stimming
- Increased ability to remain calm
- Reduced meltdowns
- Increased tolerance of challenging sensory situations
- Increased focus, attention span, and task management abilities
- Self-acceptance as an autistic person
Autistic people should be allowed to stim as needed. Accommodations can be made to environments, such as sitting on an exercise ball for wiggly autistic people, or stim toys kept in the classroom. Parents and educators should encourage stimming as long as it is not harmful.
Autistic people may benefit from various stimming tools: tangles and other fidget toys, stress balls, bracelets, chewy jewelry, and beanbags. People who have trouble sitting still can use an exercise ball as a chair, and spend plenty of time exploring or exercising outdoors.
Issues with Stims
Most stims are purely beneficial, but a few cause injury or invade others' personal space. If an autistic person uses harmful stims, the autistic person or a parent/caregiver should discuss with a therapist how to replace that stim with something less harmful. For example, banging the head could be replaced with vigorously shaking the head.
Autistic people and many loved ones are critical of the idea that stimming should be suppressed simply because it considered "socially inappropriate."
"Oh, wait, I know: socially inappropriate stims are ones that draw attention to us. If you rock in public, people will stare.
And whose problem is that? Try out these sentences instead: If you sign in public, people will stare. If you use your wheelchair in public, people will stare. If you limp in public, people will stare. If you use your assistance dog in public, people will stare.
And if people do stare, other people will think they’re rude. Who would tell a Deaf person not to sign in public or a paraplegic not to use their wheelchair in public? But people tell autistic kids not to stim in public all the time." — Cynthia Kim
If a child's stim looks unusual, parents/caregivers may wish to casually and nonjudgmentally inform them that it looks odd. This allows the autistic person to decide whether it is worth the effort to redirect it.
In some cases, stimming can be mistaken as a sign of drug use.
Stimming in Autistic Culture
"Last night as I was waiting for the pasta to cook, I found myself twirling in the kitchen and instead of stopping, I let myself enjoy it. I kicked out my foot and make a full spin to the right, then kicked out my other foot and twirled to the left. I did it again and again and soon I found myself laughing out loud.
Celebration of stimming is a common aspect of neurodiversity, acceptance, and autistic culture. They argue that stimming is not only an important coping mechanism, but an action as natural and beautiful as smiling or laughing. This can help autistic people recover from abuse and accept themselves as Autistic.
Stimming plays a noticeable role in autistic art with many Autistic artists drawing illustrations of diverse and often happy stimming people.
The Loud Hands anthology is titled as a direct rebellion to some people's desire that autistic people stop looking autistic.
Quiet Hands and Abuse
Some therapists, especially in ABA, believe that stimming should be suppressed, so that autistic children will appear more normal. They use the words quiet hands to train autistic children not to stim. Frequently this involves physically restraining the child until the child complies automatically.
"Quiet Hands is... the equivalent to duct taping [a non-autistic] person’s mouth shut or preventing a nonspeaking D/deaf person from signing."
Many individuals in the autistic community believe that this training is abusive. Julia Bascom wrote an oft-cited personal essay on the trauma, shame, and fear that Quiet Hands instilled in her. Suppression of stimming is believed to impair executive function, making it more difficult for autistic people to pay attention, collect their thoughts, and focus on tasks. Many autistic adults protest the suppression of stims in children.
I’ve yet to meet a student who didn’t instinctively know to pull back and put their hands in their lap at this order. Thanks to applied behavioral analysis, each student learned this phrase in preschool at the latest, hands slapped down and held to a table or at their sides for a count of three until they learned to restrain themselves at the words.
The literal meaning of the words is irrelevant when you’re being abused.
- "Prevalence of stereotypy among children diagnosed with autism at a tertiary referral clinic", K.A. Crosland, presented at the Association for Behavioral Analysis annual conference, May 25, 2001.
- "Stereotypic (Self-Stimulatory) Behavior (Stimming)", Stephen M. Edelson, 1995.
- Cynthia Kim: Behavior is Communication: Are you listening?
- BBC: Stimming: What autistic people do to feel calmer
- The Stimming Checklist
- Squag: De-Mystifying Stimming
- WikiHow: How to Replace Harmful Stims
- WikiHow: How to Redirect an Autistic Child's Harmful Stims
- Cynthia Kim: Socially Inappropriate
- "Family of teen with autism mistakenly tackled by police calls for better training". Retrieved on 14 September 2018.
- Cynthia Kim: Unlearning to Accept
- Real Social Skills: Stimming is not just a coping mechanism
- Way-To-Stim-Wednesday: Classroom
- Tumblr: #stimming
- Real Social Skills: Stimming
- Lydia Brown: Having Loud Hands
- The Caffeinated Autistic: On Stimming and why "quiet hands"ing an Autistic person is wrong
- Julia Bascom: Quiet Hands