Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often insist on repeating certain behaviours. They may for example spin around in circles, rock back and forward, hand flap, flick fingers, rub certain textures, pick at the skin, twist and pull on their hair, and repeat songs, and segments from television and movies.

These behaviours are known as stimming – a shorthand term for self-stimulatory behaviour. It is thought that the movement or stimming behaviour stimulates or regulates one or more senses.

It is useful to remember that there is a purpose to all behaviour and there is a purpose to stimming.

Some reasons for stimming include:

  • to reduce anxiety (repetition is calming)
  • to deal with an overactive nervous system
  • to deal with sensory issues such as proprioception (to re-establish awareness of one’s body in space).

Often stimming behaviours alert parents to the idea that their child may have autism.  At the age of 3, my son Michael engaged in endless spinning (without getting dizzy), constant picking at the skin and scabs, hand flapping when distressed, chewing on everything (including clothes, pencils, and furniture), rubbing material between his fingers, turning lights on and off, and echolalia (repeating back dialogue, lyrics etc).

Michael’s stimming behaviours would increase dramatically when he was under stress or more anxious than usual. For example, I failed to notice the hand flapping until the day we went to a paediatrician for an assessment and Michael started madly waving his hands back and forth in distress.

Another example – Michael is a picky eater (a common ASD trait) and when I dared to put a piece of unauthorised food on his plate he would start to tantrum and proceed to do circuits around the outside of our house. He wasn’t just running around like most upset kids, he was retracing his exact route, round and round the house until he’d calmed down or self-regulated.

Neurotypical people (or your average person without ASD) also engage in self-stimulatory or self-regulatory behaviours. For example, it is common to stim when we are in a boring meeting and we need to wake up a bit (up-regulate the nervous system) or to fiddle with things or put things in our mouths when we are getting stressed (down-regulate the nervous system).

Who hasn’t twirled their hair, jiggled their leg, fiddled with a pen, bit finger-nails, chewed on a pencil, or rocked slightly in the chair. And have you noticed that most people when extremely distressed or over-excited will still resort to hand flapping (I’m sure that’s where the expression ‘they were in such a flap’ came about).

The difference between a person with ASD and a neurotypical person stimming is simply a matter of degree. The person with ASD has more anxiety and sensory issues and therefore has a greater need to stim. Most adults, even those with ASD, learn how to stim in a socially acceptable manner (behind closed doors or in a less obvious manner such as hand clapping rather than hand flapping).

What can you do about stimming?

  • Stimming serves a purpose so sometimes the best thing to do is nothing – let them stim until they feel better.
  • Let them stim in private or at a certain time of day or let them stim as a reward for other behaviours.
  • Try to stop stimming if it puts the child or others in danger (e.g. head banging). You can try redirecting them into another activity or reward non-stimming behaviours.
  • Try to stop stimming if it is interfering with a particular therapy.
  • Try to work out the purpose of the stimming behaviour and deal with the cause (e.g., address the underlying anxiety or sensory issues)
  • Don’t make the child feel guilty about stimming.
  • Don’t physically stop the child from stimming, unless you want a meltdown.
  • Try to find a balance between the amounts of time spent stimming and spent engaging with the outside world.

I must admit it’s all easier said than done and I should know, as Michael’s legs and arms are covered in sores from the excessive scratching and picking that he engages in. The good news is that he no longer flaps his hands or spins on the spot; has stopped turning lights on and off, and no longer repeats speech.