Autistic people regulate themselves differently than neurotypical people do. It is a known fact. For decades, neurotypical people have been trying to reduce the frequency with which autistic people stim, ultimately eliminating it. Why? It makes them appear different than their peers.
What is Stimming?
Stimming is self-stimulatory behavior. It is a repetitive body movement or noise. It is to control sensory input in order to self-regulate. It is one of the first autism signs that are noticed in children. It is seen across just about everyone who is autistic. Stimming is not harmful but neurotypical people may find it hard to understand.
Some examples of stimming are:
- hand and finger movements such as finger flicking and hand flapping
- body movements such as rocking back and forth while sitting or standing
- posturing such as holding hands or finger out at an angle or arching the back while sitting
- visual stimulation such as looking at something sideways, watching an object spin, or fluttering fingers near the eyes
- repetitive behavior such as opening and closing doors, flicking switches
- chewing or mouthing objects
- listening to the same song or noise on repeat
- squeezing a plushie
- nail biting
- hair twirling
- spinning in circles
- repeating words or phrases
- hard blinking
- finger snapping
- covering and uncovering the ears
Why do Autistic People Stim?
I can only speak for myself. I was diagnosed at 32 years old and I have been stimming my whole life and had no idea that is what I was doing. These behaviors feel good, help me regulate, reduce anxiety, etc. We also stim when we are excited and happy. It is also done to destract us from pain.
Julia Bascom of ASAN has said,”Stimming is a way we can help ourselves feel calm, soothed or focused, but it can also be a huge source of joy or beauty. I don’t know what joy feels like to neurotypical people. I think it might be a little like dancing, or seeing a beautiful piece or art, or becoming totally engrossed in a piece of music times 10. But we can get it just from flapping our hands.”
Autistic people often have sensory processing disorder. We are either over or under-stimulated by sensory stimuli. A strong odor could cause sensory overload. This is called being hypersensitive
When we are under-stimulated by sensory stimuli, this is called hyposensitive.
Some examples of how I Stim:
- I have one playlist on my car radio I keep on repeat
- On my steering wheel, I have a Totoro steering wheel cover with a plushie wrapped around it. I play with it while driving so I can focus better
- I have a bed full of squishmallows so I can sleep.
- I squeeze a plushie, I also keep a plushie keychain on my keys so I have it wherever I go
- I watch my fidget spinner just spin. It isn’t the act of spinning it but it’s watching it spin.
- I scroll on my phone without really reading what is on social media
- In the game, Sea of Thieves, I cause as many explosions as I possibly can. The golden skeletons are shiny and shimmer when they are blown up.
- I interlock my fingers and pull my hands apart when I am feeling anxious. Even though it does cause some pain, it does help.
There is some stimming that can be harmful
Some stims have the potential to be harmful and that person may need help managing them and finding a replacement stim so they do not hurt themselves. They may need a change in the envirnment that is causing them to stim in a way that is harmful. There may be a stressor that needs to be eliminated.
Examples of these are :
- excessive self-rubbing or self scratching
- excessive nail biting
- head banging
- hand biting
- ear clapping
- slapping or hitting themselves
The Harm of Stopping Autistics From Stimming
As said earlier, stimming is essential for autistic existence. There is harm in trying to stop it. It is an equivalent of telling a neurotypical person not to cry when they are feeling really upset, in pain, sad, or grief. If it is said to someone who is experiencing pain, it is looked at as being unempathetic. The same should be applied to if someone gets an autistic person to stop stimming.
There was a study put out by the University of London. Dr. Rebecca Charlotn and her student Gabrielle Nwardu. At Goldsmiths, University of London, researchers analyzed a survey given to autistic adults . They surveyed 340 adults. 160 adults had a clinical diagnosis, 139 suspected to be autistic and 41 people were not autistic. The survey was to explore how stimming is used to help self-regulate during times of sensory overload.
This study found for many autistic adults, stimming means expressing both positive and negative emotions. It is a way to find a cognitive distraction. There are also worries over how other people perceive the behavior. This led to feelings of discomfort and attempts to stop.
A higher percentage of autistic adults participants experienced sensory sensitivity and used stimming than non-autistic adults. This experience and behavior were found to occur in non-autistic adults too. 28% of non-autistic adults who began the survey said they stimmed and went on to complete questions on this behavior.
There were participants that described stimming as helping them to “realign energy in my body better,” a way to “relieve a build-up feelings before I get overwhelmed,” a “calming,” “safe,” or “soothing,” action or something that “can also be pleasant.”
84% of autistic participants had been told not to stim or stop repetitive movement. Social pressure was a reason given for suppressing stimming, and this suppression had a negative effect on emotions and cognition.
75% of self-diagnosed autistics said they did not always stim in their preferred way, with most saying that it is because they think other people do not consider it socially acceptable.
“I don’t want to get in trouble or distract my coworkers or being embarrassed,” said one 36 year old participant.
Dr. Rebecca Charlton said,”Our research suggests that sensory sensitivities are common and associated with stimming and that stimming generally has positive effects for individuals by helping them self-regulate. But we also found that suppressing stims is very common, occurs due to social pressure, and has negative effects on individuals. These conclusions are relevant to all three groups who took part in the study
Understanding the negative impact of both suppressing stims and the social pressure to do so, may be an important step in promoting acceptance of stims. Increasing understanding and acceptance of stims, so that people can stim freely, is likely to have a positive effect on a wide range of individuals.”
The History of Why Neurotypicals Try to Stop Stimming
For decades, neurotypicals who did not understand stimming have been trying to stop it to make us “indistinguishable” from our peers. That was the original goal of ABA.
There is no reason to stop an autistic person from stimming. They aren’t hurting anyone, including themselves. Mind your own business is a good rule to follow.
Ivar Lovaas, the originator of the practices and ideas of ABA, saw stimming at an obstacle to normalization. He originally got involved with “treating” autistic children who stimmed by injuring themselves. He used electric shocks to try to stop it. He is who we have to thank for the Judge Rotenberg Center for using it today.
Lovaas sought to eliminate stimming as a whole. In the book neurotribes, Steve Silberman said that Lovaas “would say things like, ‘they have eyes, they have ears, they have noses. But they’re not really people. You have the raw materials of a person, but you have to build the person.'”
Lovaas called stimming garbage behavior. He believed that if a child was stimming, they were unable to learn. Lovaas came to this conclusion because children in his labs were in conditions of extreme stress. The stress of being there was likely the cause of the children not being able to learn. Not the stimming. The stress was the cause of the stimming.
It is known now that it makes more executive functioning resources available in the cortex. It enhances the potential to learn.
Since then, there are articles upon articles on how to stop stiming. Not all of them are accurate but they prey on parents who just want to help their kids. These parents are unaware of what benefit stimming can bring.