Formerly House with No Steps and The Tipping Foundation
Boy stimming by using a fidget spinner

Never heard of stimming? You probably do it…

Ever bitten your nails, jiggled your knee nervously, or clicked your pen in a meeting? Well, these are all examples of ‘stimming’.

Boy stimming by using a fidget spinner
September 6, 2017

Never heard of ‘stimming’? We’re here to explain what this word actually means. Who knows, you might be more familiar with it than you realised…

Ever bitten your nails before an interview, jiggled your knee, twirled your hair around your finger, clicked your pen up and down, or anxiously paced around a room? Well, these are all examples of ‘stimming’.

Sometimes referred to as self-stimulatory behaviour, stimming is: ‘repetitive or unusual body movement or noise’.

Most people tend to just use these ‘stims’ from time-to-time, and pretty much we’re able to control them. But, for some people with a disability such as autism, stimming can be harder to control.

How is stimming different for people with autism?

Stimming is most commonly seen in children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder.

Pretty much everyone stims now and again, but the biggest difference for people with autism is how often they stim, the type they use, and how noticeable it is.

Common stims for people with autism include hand flapping, rocking, flicking or snapping fingers, bouncing or jumping, pacing, head banging, spinning objects, and repeating words.

Some people with autism may stim a lot, others a little. Some may ‘grow out’ of the behaviour, while others may stim throughout their lives.

We’re not sure why people with autism stim

While it’s pretty common, stimming still isn’t fully understood, even by experts.

It’s believed that people with autism stim for different reasons such as when they are stressed, excited, anxious, or overwhelmed.

Some people may stim because they are oversensitive to their environment – and can be a calming distraction. Others may stim because they are under sensitive to their environment and are looking to stimulate their senses.

Stimming can also just be a bit of a habit, like whistling when walking down the street.

Stimming isn’t always a problem

While sometimes there is a stigma around stimming, it’s not necessarily a bad thing! It can actually help people get through tricky and overwhelming situations.

On the flipside: if it becomes distracting, creates social problems, causes physical harm to the person or others, or interferes with daily life, then it may need to be managed.

For example, if a child is absorbed in watching their fingers instead of listening to their teacher, they may be missing out on the lesson.

For some people as well, stimming can cause injury – such as severe hand-biting or head banging.

It is possible to manage stimming

If you think that stimming is a cause for concern for you or your child, there are ways to manage it (although it may not be possible to stop it altogether).

Often, the first step is to talk to a health professional who can help to understand the reason behind it.

Once you understand, you can find different ways to manage it, such as providing alternative forms of stimulation, changing things in a person’s environment, reducing anxiety, or doing more physical activity.

‘Stimtoys’ do exist… and you’ve almost certainly seen one

We’re sure heard of the Fidget Spinner – you couldn’t escape them in 2017! Fidget spinners were so popular, that by half way through 2017, they accounted for 17% of all online toy sales.

It’s basically a toy you can stim with it – a toy that you hold between your thumb and finger and when you flick it, it spins for ages.

While it may seem strange that kids would play with toys in class, the reason for this was some people said the Fidget Spinner helped to calm and focus kids who have anxiety, ADHD and autism.

But do they actually help?

While some parents do report positive effects for their child, anecdotal evidence (people sharing their experiences), is different to scientific evidence (formal studies done by the experts).

And so far, there’s no actual scientific evidence to support these marketing claims.