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Stimming Behavior and Autism: What it is, Causes And How To Manage It

Stimming behavior is also known as stereotypy behavior. This type of behavior is often seen in children with autism and other intellectual disabilities. But stimming behavior is also seen in individuals who are overwhelmed, stressed or anxious.

Stimming is any behavior that involved movements or sounds that are repeated to self-stimulate and soothe.  Most stimming behavior involves activating all five senses for a variety of reasons.

What does stimming behavior look like?

Stimming is classified into two categories ‘lower-order’ and ‘higher-order.’  Lower-order stimming consists of behaviors like body rocking and hand-flapping.  Higher-order stims are repetitive behaviors like routines and intense interests.  

Common stimming behaviors include:

  • Nail-biting
  • Rocking
  • Spinning
  • Hand-flapping
  • Repeating words or phrases
  • Hair pulling 

These are just a few common examples of stimming behavior seen in relation to autism.  It’s important to know that not every stimming behavior is seen as disruptive or unusual.  When someone bites their nails because they are feeling anxious, no one really notices. That’s because nail-biting is seen by everyone as a normal behavior occurring periodically when someone is experiencing anxiety.

When the stimming behavior is more noticeable and consistent in someone’s life, it may become disruptive to others.  If a child spins in circles in public, he or she may not be aware that the behavior disrupts other people. Therefore, the behavior is not stopped but continued even in social situations.

It’s important to note that sometimes once a child starts the stimming behavior; it can be hard to stop.  Secondly, those with autism who stim may repeat movements that could cause physical harm to themselves.  

Some stimming behaviors that lead to self-injury include:

  • Headbanging
  • Hitting
  • Biting
  • Sore or scab picking
  • Tasting or swallowing dangerous items

What Are The Causes Of Stimming Behavior?

Science has yet to determine the cause of stimming behavior.  There are multiple theories about why individuals with autism engage in stimming behavior.  

One theory is that repetitive behavior helps calm an individual allowing them to focus their attention during stressful situations.  This theory believes stimming is done when there is too much sensory input from the environment causing overstimulation for the individual.

The second theory states that stimming is a behavior that stimulates the sensory system.  When someone stims it arouses the nervous system that creates a pleasure response from the surge of dopamine in the brain.  This theory supports the idea that there’s not enough sensory input and stimming is done to create more stimulation.

Stimming behavior is not well studied by science because research typically focuses on social and communication problems related to autism.  

What Can Be Done To Manage Stimming?

For individuals who stim during times of stress and anxiety, he or she may notice themselves stimming and be able to stop the behavior if they feel it becoming out of control.  However, people with autism may have trouble stopping the behavior.

Stimming behavior is not treated.  Instead, managing the behavior is key.  While you don’t want to suppress the stimming behavior if it causes physical harm in some way, the behavior needs to be tightly managed to help prevent self-injury.

To manage stimming behavior due to autism, here are some easy at-home management ideas!

Sensory Toys

Thankfully, sensory toys allow people with autism to focus their energy on a sensory toy compared to the stimming behavior.  A variety of sensory toys are available that include…

sensory toys
  • Squeeze toys- Soft toys or balls meant to be squished repetitively 
  • Sensory balls- Balls with different textures, bumps, colors and/or lights to activate the senses (also known as tactile toys)
  • Moldable toys- Example: Slime, playdough, kinetic sand and more.  Helps children increase focus and creativity
  • Fidget toys- Fidget spinners or blocks that provides clicking noises for auditory stimulation

Eliminate Medical Conditions

Medical conditions like headaches, pain and ear infections may be the cause stimming or make it worse.  To help a child lessen stimming behavior, it’s important to rule out medical conditions.

Provide A Calm Environment

Stimming may become worse when someone is under anxiety or stress.  To reduce the amount of stimming behavior, try and reduce anxiety or situations where a child with autism may become easily overwhelmed.

Try Exercise

To reduce stimming, some people with autism find exercise to be helpful.  Research shows physical activity helps release tension to reduce stimming behavior.  Not only will exercise lessen it, but exercise is a way to provide stimulation for those who engage in stimming to create a sensory experience.

Teach Self-regulation Of Emotions

One area children with autism struggle with is regulating and expressing emotions in a positive way.  This is due to not being able to read or recognize the emotions of others as well as themselves. If a child becomes upset, it can be hard to express anxiety or anger in words. 

When words or another outlet is not used to express strong emotions, stimming behavior may become worse.  To help with stimming, it’s helpful for a child to learn self-regulation of emotions.

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Personal Experience With Stimming

My son starting stimming by the age of 8 months old.  Once he could stand up and crawl onto furniture, he started rocking his body back and forth.  I thought at first, he was just rocking to put himself to sleep. But the rocking continued.

He’s now three and he stims throughout the day.  Rocking on the couch back and forth has become a consistent behavior for him.  Lately, the stimming has gotten worse because it’s become more aggressive. If he jumps up and rocks back into the couch his head will hit a windowsill.  Unfortunately, he will keep jumping and rocking at the same time to bang his head on purpose repeatedly. 

It’s hard to watch this type of behavior and I’m trying my best to monitor and manage it before the stimming gets to the point of self-injury.  

To help manage the behavior, I bought different sensory toys including sensory balls with spikes and bright colors.  Every time his stimming becomes too aggressive, I hand him his sensory balls to focus on and I’ve seen a positive improvement!  Once he has a sensory toy in hand, the rocking stops!

Although sensory toys do help curb his stimming behavior, I’m hoping once my son starts occupational therapy the stimming will be better managed.

Conclusion

Stimming is a behavior that’s very misunderstood.  Not only does more research need to be conducted on the behavior itself, but for those who don’t have an autistic relative stimming may seem “out of the ordinary” or “weird.”

For some, stimming behavior like nail-biting is seen as normal by society and only happens temporarily when someone is under stress.  But for people with autism, the stimming can’t always be stopped.

As a mom with a child who stims, it’s a normal everyday behavior.  While I can’t completely stop my son from stimming, I can try to manage it with sensory toys and eliminate any self-injury behavior.  It’s difficult to deal with, but stimming can be managed. I’ve also come to accept that my son’s stimming behavior of rocking back and forth is just a part of who he is as a person.

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The author’s views are entirely his or her own and may not necessarily reflect the views of Blub Blub Inc. All content provided on this website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgement, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

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