The flapping of hands, tapping of objects and biting things. The noises from the mouth, repetitive sounds and jumping up and down. These things tend to seem weird to neurotypicals, but for autistic people like me, they’re a fact of life. They – those behaviours that get glares and stares in public – are self-stimulatory behaviours, commonly know as stimming.
What is stimming?
The first – and probably most important – thing to cover in this post is what stimming actually is. If we’re going to be clinical, stimming is “Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypies, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).” That’s a quote from the common autism diagnostic criteria found within the DSM-5. Stimming is way more complicated than that though. To understand stimming, you can’t just hear one sentence, filled with medical terminology. You need to understand the seven senses, along with why we stim.
The Seven Senses
At perhaps the first opportunity in school, we’re taught the five sense:
All of these are important in understanding sensory experiences. I receive tactile stimulation from tapping, running fingers along silky fabrics and touching things. Eating smooth chocolate that slides down my throat and drinking tea at the perfect strength give me gustation input. Watching Christmas lights, snow falling and paint mixing provide me with the visual stimulation I need. I receive auditory input by listening to music at the perfect (fairly low) volume and repeating sounds and words just so I can hear them. I smell body sprays, and flowers and food to get olfaction input.
However, there are two more senses that are just as important. We don’t talk about them much, but we really need to. They are called the proprioceptive sense and the vestibular sense.
Proprioception is the sense of where your body is in the space it occupies, the way the body moves, the effort this takes and the force required to do so. My proprioceptive sense is some of what make makes me clumsy; I walk in to everything, misjudging doorways that have been in the house I’ve lived in my whole life, because I’m uncertain – on some level – about the space I occupy.
A lot of autistic people receive proprioceptive input in a similar way – weighted therapy. This is using heavy things – usually specially designed weighted blankets, lap pads or shoulder pads – to help calm down. They help the sympathetic nervous system – the system that determines your fight or flight response (the thing that causes meltdowns in autistic people). If your body is calm, so your heart rate isn’t racing and your blood isn’t pumping way too fast, it’s easier to calm yourself down mentally, to think things through carefully and work things out.
The last sense that needs mentioning is the vestibular sense. This also plays into my clumsiness; it’s to do with balance and movement. The vestibular system is responsible for me fall over at the slightest movement and plays into my somewhat poor motor skills. Vestibular input will come from activities such as rocking and flapping – anything to do with movement, really. This is why the majority of my stims at vestibular – clapping, flapping, rocking and jumping.
Stims aren’t limited to one sense, though. I could be clapping for the tactile input while also enjoying the auditory input.
Why Autistic People Stim
There are many reasons autistic people stim, but here, I’d say, are the top three:
- To calm or sooth
- To deal with emotions
- To cope with sensory input
At the top of the list is calming and soothing. If you’re neurotypical, think of something you do when you’re stressed. You might come home and have a bath, read a book to relax or have a lie down. These things can clear your mind and help you deal with the future, whether that’s later on that day or the day after. Activities like these are forms of self-care and ways of coping with stressful situations. Stimming as self-regulation – soothing if you like – is just this, except it’s a solution in the moment. It’s a behaviour that can have this impact. It feels like a natural response.
Dealing with emotions is a very similar idea to calming – if you’re overloaded with emotion, you’ll want to calm down and thus use strategies. Stimming doesn’t always equal an emotion, it can be a passive activity, but I’d say it is quite often an emotional response. It’s similar to how you’d cry if you’re sad. The thing with autistic people – as I mentioned in this post – is that we have complex relationships with emotions. Whether this is alexithymia or just difficulty in reacting in a ‘typical’ way to a scenario, it’s clear we won’t react the same to neurotypicals if we don’t interpret emotions the same way.
Coping with sensory input comes down to the two common types (within neurodivergent people) of sensory experiences, that aren’t typical to neurotypicals. They’re called hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. They look and sound similar, but they’re polar opposites. Hypersensitivity is being oversensitive to sensory stimuli while hyposensitivity is being under-sensitive to stimuli. Which category a person falls into can vary from sense to sense from day to day, and they may not even have a atypical sensory experience with a specific sense. I tend reside around hypersensitive for most part.
It’s not usually clean cut, someone is hypersensitive and someone is hyposensitive, but for the sake of simplicity, say it is. Person A is hypersensitive and person B is hyposensitive. Person A reacts to loud noises by trying to cover their ears and biting their hand in distress. They are trying to receive input in another way to calm them down. Noises are louder for them than most people around them, and even though their neurotypical friend says ‘it’s not that loud!’, it is to them. Meanwhile, Person B is in the same room. It doesn’t seem that loud to them, so they put on some headphones and listen to music loudly. They’re now receiving the input they need, so they flapping contentedly along to the music.
Like always, no autistic person is the same in this respect, but I hope this example illustrates how sensory input is linked to other senses and how reactions to it vary.
Self Injurious Behaviours in Stimming
For the most part, stimming is completely harmless and should not be stopped at all. If people are staring, it’s their problem. It’s not an embarrassing thing, it’s just a natural part of autistic life. However, if the stims are self injurious then they need to be replaced.
Self Injurious Behaviours – or SIBs – in stimming usually occur during meltdowns and what I said in my post, A Guide To: Meltdowns, still stands here. I talk there about redirection, changing the stim so it’s not harmful.
‘Headbanging on a hard floor or wall can be redirected to a pillow, which will obviously cause a lot less damage. For biting, chewable silicone can be a great substitute. It can be brought in a variety of toughness levels and is often found as jewellery as an on-the-go solution. Long lasting lip balm, or moisturiser for skin, might helping with picking and having hair tied back are other solutions.’ – A Guide To: Meltdowns
Other than SIBs within stimming, no one and nothing should stop you. Stimming is a helpful coping mechanism that comes naturally to autistic people.
Thank you for reading this A Guide To post, I’ve been working on it for a few months now. I’d also like to thank everyone who’s been commenting on and sharing my posts – it means a lot and is helpful in reaching a wider audience!
A lot of this post came from knowledge I’ve acquired, but below are a few sources from which I’ve found some additional information that proved helpful to this post: