The What and Why of Stimming

July 12, 2016

Believe it or not, all of us do some form of self stimulation throughout the course of the day whether it is tapping a pencil, chewing on nails, cracking knuckles, twirling hair during a movie or rocking when tired. Self Stimulation, or stimming for short, is the repetition of physical movements, sounds, or repetitive movement of objects common in individuals with developmental disabilities, but most prevalent in people with autistic spectrum disorders. Parents whose children are on the spectrum are probably well aware of the unique stimming activities of their child.  For those of you who are looking to understand this behavior better here are a few pieces of information to help you gain insight into the “what and why” of self stimulation.

What are common “stimming” behaviors?

Here are some stereotypical stimming behaviors.(Source: North Shore Pediatricians)

  • Visual: Staring at lights or ceiling fans; repetitive blinking; moving fingers in front of the eyes; hand-flapping, gazing at nothing in particular; tracking eyes; peering out of the corners of eyes; lining up objects; turning on and off light switches.
  • Auditory: Vocalizing in the form of humming, grunting, or high-pitched shrieking; tapping ears or objects; covering and uncovering ears; snapping fingers; making vocal sounds; repeating vocal sequences; repeating portions of videos, books or songs at inappropriate times.
  • Tactile: Scratching or rubbing the skin with one’s hands or with another object; opening and closing fists; tapping surfaces with fingers.
  • Vestibular: Rocking front to back; rocking side-to-side; spinning; jumping; pacing.
  • Taste: Placing body parts or objects in one’s mouth; licking objects.
  • Smell: Sniffing or smelling people or objects.

Many parents of special needs children seek to stop the behavior but the real goal should instead be understanding the reasons why this behavior is happening. Instead of stopping the stimming (which could be quickly replaced by another type of stimming) parents and relatives (and teachers) should look at the motivations behind the behavior in order to understand the needs of the child better. For example there are several hypotheses and known causes for stimming:

1. Overstimulation – stimming can help block out excess sensory input. Is there too much sound, lights, people, smells?
2. Understimulation – stimming helps provide extra sensory input when needed. Does the child need to be engaged?
3. Pain reduction- repeated banging of the head or body actually reduces the overall sensation of pain.  One hypothesis is that stimming causes the release of beta-endorphins in the body, which then causes a feeling of anesthesia or pleasure.
4. Management of emotions – both positive and negative emotions may trigger a burst of stimming.  We’ve all seen physical reactions to joy or excitement, such as jumping or hand-flapping.  Frustration or anger may intensify a stim to the point that it becomes destructive.

5. Self-regulation – some stims serve the purpose of soothing or comforting.  Many infants learn to suck their thumbs to relax themselves.