Stimming, also called self-stimulation or more clinically stereotypy, is a repetitive movement or sound that autistic people make. All autistic people stim. In fact, the DSM-5 includes stimming as a part of the diagnostic criteria for ASD, in outlining it as “stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech.”
Some common ways of stimming are rocking, spinning, making repetitive noises, hand flapping, hair twirling, finger flicking, etc. Autistic people aren’t necessarily the only ones who stim. Everyone has stimmed at one point or another, though they may not know that’s what they’re doing. If you’ve ever bounced your leg while listening to a lecture, tapped your foot while waiting, chewed on your pen or moved it back and forth while you were trying to think of an answer on a test, you’ve stimmed.
The difference between when neurotypical people stim and when autistic people stim, lies in the amount, frequency, and need in relation to the stimming. While a neurotypical person may tap their foot when they’re bored or nervous for a test, engaging in similar behavior is an autistic way of being. It’s how we regulate, how we express ourselves, and it happens often and regularly.
I personally stim all. the. time. I flap when I’m excited or sometimes when I’m overwhelmed, I twirl my hair constantly, I tap my head when I’m stressed, I flap my legs and hands, I wring my hands, I listen to the same song 25 times in a row, and many other things. I used to twirl in the yard for hours on end when I was a kid and reveled in every second of it. My stims are generally more discreet in public though. I tap my fingers, I twist my fingers under the table, I pick at the strings on my clothes, etc.
Stimming is not meaningless. It helps us to be able to focus, to feel better, to feel more engaged, and to understand and navigate things within the context of our environment. When we’re happy, sad, anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, afraid, or when we don’t even know what we’re feeling, we stim.
It’s an innate part of being autistic, and sometimes we honestly don’t even know we’re doing it, it’s such a part of us. Taking away an autistic’s ability to stim is like depriving them of air. If someone is stimming, it’s to cater to a need, whether it be for self-regulation, the expression of emotions as I mentioned, or for sensory stimulation/input. Stimming helps us to better navigate the world around us, and shouldn’t be limited or forbidden.
Stimming is not usually harmful, and keeping someone from stimming or telling us to stop stimming is akin to telling us that we should be embarrassed about it, that we should be hiding who we are. Would you tell us to hold our breath? It might seem like a dramatic comparison, but telling an autistic person they can’t or shouldn’t stim is like taking a fish out of the water and just expecting it to develop lungs and adapt. Wouldn’t work for the fish, doesn’t work for us.
There are a variety of excuses people use to try to say that autistic people shouldn’t stim or that we need to control our stims, but they are empty attempts at trying to make us seem “normal” and do the opposite of helping. If a stim is hurtful, then it’s helpful for an autistic person to try to find another way to stim. By hurtful, I don’t mean that neurotypicals feel uncomfortable watching as someone flaps or that they rock while they’re taking a test. I mean legitimately hurtful, as in things like scratching yourself until you bleed. If it’s not a stim that’s harmful, then it shouldn’t be stopped or redirected, as it’s serving a purpose.
I think there are a number of reasons people may want other people to stop stimming, and I think for the most part those reasons are because the person watching the stimming is uncomfortable. It looks or sounds different, they may think it’s disruptive, they don’t understand it or its function, or they think that it will impede upon learning or paying attention, which happens often in a school environment.
As someone who has worked in a few educational environments, nearly all with autistic people, I honestly can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed a teacher or aide try to keep a child from stimming. It’s like they see it as an inconvenience, and words can’t express how broken it makes me feel every single time I witness that. One common phrase a lot of people use in the educational system when a child is stimming is “quiet hands.” A kid is flapping when they’re trying to concentrate on the flashcards you’re wanting them to respond to? The obvious response is “quiet hands”, right? No. Just no. Notice I said it’s done when you’re trying to get them to concentrate on the task at hand? Well, that’s exactly what they’re trying to do, and exactly what you’re trying to stop. This whole “quiet hands” thing can be extremely detrimental.
Here is an article by Julia Bascom, an autistic woman, writer, and self-advocate. It describes her experiences with “quiet hands” and is exceptionally profound.
No one should have to worry about how loud or quiet their hands are, how much they love to spin in circles, or how much they rock. They shouldn’t have to care about how other people think it looks. Just let people be. Let them express themselves, let them regulate, let them be.