I often get asked about Cody’s stimming and why autistic people do this? So what is stimming? Wikipedia defines it as a self-stimulatory behavior, also known as stimming and self-stimulation, is the repetition of physical movements, sounds, or repetitive movement of objects common in individuals with developmental disabilities, but most prevalent in people with autistic spectrum disorders.
Temple Grandin’s post in Autism Digest says, “Stimming, or self-stimulatory behaviors, are behaviors people with autism may exhibit to counteract an overwhelming sensory environment or alleviate the high levels of internal anxiety. Some examples of stimming are rocking, spinning, pacing, repeating words or flapping of arms or hands.”
Autistic people aren’t the only ones who stim, although occasionally people on the spectrum stim in more obvious ways and may attract attention. Many people have a hard time grasping why someone would stim.
Truth is, we ALL stim. If you’ve ever tapped your pencil, bitten your nails, twirled your hair, or paced, you’ve engaged in stimming. Stimming is almost always a symptom of autism, but it’s important to note that stimming is also a part of most people’s behavior patterns. The biggest differences between autistic and typical stimming are the choice and quantity of stim. While it’s at least moderately acceptable to bite one’s nails, for example, it’s considered “different” to wander around flapping one’s hands. There’s really no good reason why flapping should be less acceptable than nail biting (it’s certainly more hygienic!). But in our world, the hand flappers receive strange attention while the nail biters are tolerated.
Like anyone else, people with autism stim to help themselves to manage anxiety, fear, anger, and other negative emotions. Like many people, people with autism may stim to help themselves handle overwhelming sensory input (too much noise, light, heat, etc). Unlike most people, though, individuals with autism may also self-stimulate constantly, and stimming may stand between them and their ability to interact with others, take part in ordinary activities, or even be included in typical classrooms.
I posted an article recently about stimming and really loved what a dear friend had to say about stimming and how she found a way to channel this stimming into a hobby/interest. Here is what she said.
LOVE. THIS. ARTICLE! As a BCBA, I have tried to explain this to parents of spectrum kiddos over & over. We all stim! My self-stimulators behavior is channeled into reading a novel to escape reality for a bit, maybe pouring a glass of wine, or even taking a run! As a musician, sitting down to play at the piano is certainly self-stimulating! We never want to take the comfort of stimming away. Rather, we help replace stims that prevent functioning with stims that are considered socially appropriate, thus allowing the child to eventually mainstream into a classroom without being a distraction, and one day holding a job. Ex: years ago I was working with a sweet girl who was a tapper. She loved to tap her finders on just about any hard surface there was. We put that stim behavior through extinction, while simultaneously purchasing her a pair of tap shoes. We were able to eradicate the constant tapping that was preventing her from functioning in her preschool classroom, but channeled her into tap lessons! And guess what? This kiddos STILL, 10 years later, loves to tap dance! And the even greater thing about her is that she now NO LONGER QUALIFIES FOR HER AUTISM DIAGNOSIS! Talk about making my heart happy! Yes, folks, these precious kids CAN be recovered, with hard work at an early age! And Shelley Stone-Neustupa, I just know the same will go for Cody, due to your hard work!
I loved what she wrote! Like she mentioned, at times, stimming can be a useful accommodation, making it possible for the autistic person to manage challenging situations. When it becomes a distraction or in some cases can cause physical harm to self or others, try to channel it through something else. Brad and I often re-direct Cody when we notice it affecting his learning and other times when he is happy and it’s not affecting his learning, he will flap his arms with such joy and it makes us happy. Cody is also our “hummer.” His humming started at a very early age and he often will hum the entire time he is eating a meal or if he is in the car. We never tell him ”no” we just simply re-direct him. I tend to start singing and this seems to calm him pretty quick.
In closing, The Mighty asked their readers with autism how they explain what stimming is like. Here are a few:
“It’s a comforting thing to do. Neurotypical people probably understand and do similar things, but the difference is that autism stims feel more necessary, and trying to stop them causes unpleasantness for us. It makes me feel uncomfortable when [it] cannot be done.” — Elizabeth Alford
“It’s a combination of habit and releasing build-up of stress or internal energy in the body. It isn’t something you do only when you have anxiety or negative feelings, it feels good. It’s kind of necessary.” — Planet Autism