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What Does Stimming Mean?

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As a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, I’ve encountered a lot of new terms and concepts. One that initially puzzled me was “stimming.” If you’re wondering about stimming meaning and why it’s important for autistic individuals, you’re not alone. Stimming, short for self-stimulatory behavior, involves repetitive movements or sounds like hand-flapping, rocking, humming, or even repeating words or phrases. While everyone stims to some degree (think about nail-biting or foot-tapping), it’s particularly prevalent in people with autism. Autistic people may stim to manage overwhelming sensory input, express emotions like joy or anxiety, or even improve focus and concentration. In this blog post, I’ll talk about the reasons behind stimming, its benefits, and how you can support healthy stimming behaviors in your child.

What Is a Stim?

Stimming meaning, or repetitive movements or sounds that people do in response to overstimulation, is something that everyone does in one way or another. While it may not always be apparent, it’s a common behavior to relieve stress, cope with emotions, or serve as a distraction. Happy stimming, which is when people engage do it to express pleasure, is also quite common. The majority of people’s stims are harmless and often go unnoticed. In fact, you might be engaging in it yourself without even realizing it. For example, tapping your foot, whistling, biting your fingernails, or twirling your hair are all examples of this behavior.

What Is Autistic Stimming?

Stimming is usually more pronounced in people with autism. People with autism do this because they’re bored, out of enjoyment, or to manage overloads of sensory information. It can become dangerous when the the behavior interferes with the ability to perceive the world around them or when it’s self-injurious.   

Goally tablet showing Mood Tuner, the emotional regulation app for kids to help them manage big emotions.
Read more: The Best Autism Toys for Toddlers, Kids & Teens in 2022

Some autistic stimming meaning behaviors include:

  • Hand-flapping
  • Pacing
  • Scratching the skin
  • Humming
  • Repeatedly opening and closing doors
  • Head banging
  • Rocking
  • Smelling objects or people
  • Repeating words or phrases
What Does Stimming Mean this image shows a child stimming by smelling a flower
Read more: What is an Example of ADHD Stimming?

Do People With ADHD Have It?

Stimming is not unique to people with autism. People with ADHD also do this to self-soothe, improve focus, get rid of excess energy, control impulses, or simply because they feel boredom. Understimulating and overstimulating environments can be a trigger for ADHD stimming.

ADHD stimming may look like:

  • Eating the same thing everyday
  • Biting nails
  • Scratching the skin
  • Rubbing or tapping fingers
  • Teeth grinding
  • Excessive pretending 
  • Doodling in class
What Does Stimming Mean this image shows a child playing with a stress ball
Read more: Fidget Toys for ADHD: Do They Help?

How To Manage It

Constant, harmful, or disruptive stimming can be a concern for individuals. However, rather than trying to eliminate these behaviors completely, it’s often more effective to redirect those impulses through another outlet or change the environment. Behavioral therapy can also be a helpful tool. Providing constructive and healthy outlets for this behavior is crucial. Some options include stress balls, designated sensory rooms with equipment such as swings, weighted blankets, or tactile pillows.

Goally | Kid’s Tablet for Building Emotional Regulation Skills

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The Mood Tuner app encourages kids to look inwards and identify their feelings, helping them understand what’s going on inside. Once they’ve recognized their emotions, they can choose from a variety of exercises designed to help them self-regulate and find their balance.

Changing the environment can be helpful for people with autism who may experience sensory overload triggers that can lead to harmful stimming behaviors. Reducing the likelihood of encountering these triggers is important. You can achieve this by avoiding areas with harsh lighting, loud noises, and limiting the number of people in the room when possible. Sound-blocking headphones are also a useful tool to help prevent overstimulation, particularly when you don’t have much control over the environment

FAQs About What Does Stimming Mean

What is stimming meaning?
Stimming is short for self-stimulatory behavior. It refers to repetitive movements or sounds that a person makes to help them cope with overwhelming sensory input or emotions.

Why do people stim?
People stim to help relieve stress, cope with emotions, or serve as a distraction. Stimming can also be a way for individuals to self-regulate and feel more in control of their environment.

Is stimming harmful?
Stimming is typically harmless and can be a beneficial coping mechanism. However, constant, harmful, or disruptive stimming behaviors may be a cause for concern and may require intervention.

How can you help someone who stims?
It's important to recognize that stimming is a natural behavior for many individuals and should not be discouraged outright. Instead, provide constructive outlets for stimming impulses, such as sensory rooms or stress balls. You can also try to modify the environment to reduce sensory overload triggers.

Can stimming be a sign of autism?
Yes, stimming is commonly associated with autism. However, it's important to note that stimming can also be a behavior exhibited by individuals with other developmental or sensory disorders, or even by neurotypical individuals under certain circumstances.

This post was originally published on 11/14/2022. It was updated on 02/23/2024.

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