What Does Stimming Mean?
What does it mean when an autistic child is stimming?
Stimming is a great way to connect with your child.
Sometimes it can be frustrating or even embarrassing. Stimming is behavior. Think of it as communication.
Stimming is a shortened way of saying Self-Stimulatory Behavior.
Many times what it means is that the person is overwhelmed. Although it can mean the person is bored, excited, happy, angry – it can mean a variety of things. It is something that is done as a way to cope with the situation. As you can see, stimming can mean a variety of things.
Stimming is a way of communication. Think about it if it’s hard to speak, how would you communicate? For example, think about the last time you were really, really happy, like something wonderful happened to you. What did you do? Did you shout? Did you say “YES!!! Oh, man, that’s fantastic!”
Did you tell someone?
What if you couldn’t do any of that, then what?
You might get so excited that you would jump, jump, jump, or maybe flap your hands, right? You have this excited energy. What can you do with it? You’ve got to move that energy somehow in some type of rapid way. So in this instance, stimming is being done by a person to share their excitement.
If you watch your child more and more, you might see that they typically do certain things when they’re happy. Maybe next time, join in with them. It can be lots of fun.
Okay, let’s take another example. Think about the last time you were disrespected. You were probably, like, told no to everything you wanted to do all day long. You’d probably be very angry and your anger might be just building up all day. You might want to, like, shake out that emotion somehow. Flick it away, right?
So you might really start flicking your wrists or flicking something on your foot or your knee or doing something like that. But as the day went on, you kept getting more and more frustrated and angry. You might be flicking your wrists even more. Stimming this way is used to cope with the situation. The central nervous system is getting overwhelmed. Primal instincts of fight or flight are being evoked.
Flicking the wrists or doing something like that can calm the nervous system. And that can be one reason why many people with autism flick their wrists. But your child might have a different way to remain calm. So stimming is not the exact same for everybody. Start to notice the different ways your child uses stimming as a way to communicate.
It’s a great way to start connecting with your child.
Should You Stop an Autistic Child From Stimming?
This is a hotly debated topic, so let me give you both perspectives.
As discussed, Stimming is a shortened way of saying Self Stimulatory Behavior. Many times, what it means is that the person is overwhelmed, although it can mean that the person is bored, excited, happy, angry. It can mean a variety of things. Stimulating is something that is done as a way to cope with the situation.
As you can see, stimming can mean a variety of things.
Stimming is a way of communicating. Think about it. If it’s hard to speak, how would you communicate?
The first thing to understand is the actual stim itself.
What does it mean? What is your child trying to communicate? Then ask yourself, Is there stim an acceptable way to express that? Whatever that is! And that is where the controversy starts?
Acceptable, right? The world is such that if someone behaves differently, people comment or they look or they stare. So at first glance, when I say the word acceptable, it might seem that you are trying to change your child’s behavior because of society, and that’s a decision for you to make.
Please also keep in mind that when stims are disruptive, it might actually prevent your child from taking part in a favorite activity.
All right, let’s give an example: Let’s say your child loves music and they get so excited and happy and they squeal and maybe fluff their hands and you take them to a concert. A music concert. Music that they love, right. This is great.
But what if their squealing is louder than the music at the concert? Now their stim will prevent them from having a positive experience that they would actually enjoy. This is where careful thinking must occur about stopping stimming. The hand flapping might be okay in this concert example because it’s not really going to distract the entire audience. It might distract a few people nearby. But those people can focus on the music. Right?
But the squealing – that might get your child kicked out of the concert, then they’re going to get upset and you’re going to get upset.
So redirecting squealing, redirecting the stim to something else in your child’s best interest so that they could actually enjoy the concert. So it’s not stopping stimming. It’s redirecting so that the stimming isn’t destructive.
Stimming is a way of communicating. So you definitely don’t want to stop your child from stimming, but at times you might want to redirect it to a way that’s less disruptive but still allows them to communicate. I can say from my experience as a parent, it is impossible to stop stimming because it’s your child communicating.
I certainly don’t think stimming should be stopped. But if it prevents your child from experiencing things in life that they enjoy, then, yes, teaching them an appropriate way to express themselves makes the most sense for everybody.
You want your child to be happy and to go and be involved in things. And if they’re doing something that’s disruptive, it makes sense to teach them a way to still express themselves. But in a way that is not disruptive.
What are some examples of Stimming?
Stimming is behavior, yes, but let’s try to think about stimming as communicating. Let’s get into this topic a bit.
Stimming is a shortened way of saying self-stimulatory behavior.
Many times what it means is that the person is overwhelmed, although it can also mean that the person is annoyed, angry, excited, bored, happy.
Stimming is something that is done as a way to cope with the situation. Here are some examples:
Jumping in place
- Rocking back and forth
- Snapping fingers – a lot of times it’s up to the ear to hear that repetitiveness
- Pacing back and forth
- Rubbing the skin or hair
As you can see, there is a repetitive function to these behaviors. Also notice that these behaviors are obvious. You’re going to notice them.
Not all stims are so obvious or distracting to people. The stims I just mentioned are many times called “unacceptable” because they are disruptive in the classroom. Now, of course, there are things that people do that are, “acceptable”, such as twirling your hair or nail-biting, cracking the knuckles (I do this), wiggling the foot, pencil tapping, tapping your fingers on the desk.
There are many ways that repetitive motion and repetitive feedback to the body is, in many ways, calming.
So stimming is behavior, usually repetitive behavior, that is really trying to communicate something.
Start to notice the different ways your child uses stimming as a way of communicating. It’s a great way to start connecting with your child.
Is Visual Stimming Always Autism?
Stimming can be done for different senses, so visual, auditory, tactile, vestibular, taste, and smell. Let’s understand what makes visual stimming is and if it always means Autism.
What is visual stimming?
Stimming is short for self-stimulatory behavior. Think of stimming as a behavior that is used to communicate. Stimming can mean the person is happy or overwhelmed, bored, scared, mad, annoyed as anything else, it can mean a variety of different emotions.
Here are some examples of visual stimming, so moving the fingers in front of the eyes, looking out of the corners of the eyes, repetitive blinking, turning the lights off or on, either repetitively or they preferred off for a while, then on for a while -there’s kind of a flow back and forth between the on and the off state. Putting bright objects close to the eyes being fixated on rotating objects like a ceiling fan.
Some even say that lining items up is a way to visually stim by controlling the environment (this specific stem sometimes means a particular gut infection. So please make sure you’re working with an excellent functional medicine doctor who has great experience with autism)
Okay, so is visual stimming only done by those with autism?
Ever need to wake up and you go out and you look at the sun. Ever be bored in a class and watch the second hand rotate around and around the clock. Those are visual stims. In both those cases, you are seeking stimulation. Ever had a long day and you go home and just dim all the lights and you just need to have a break that’s sensory avoiding. Those with autism might do these stims to a greater degree, but someone without autism can do them as well.
So to answer the question is visually stimming always autism? The answer is no. We all visually stim from time to time.
When it’s hard to communicate, someone might start to stim more and more because remember, stimming is communicating.
How to Reduce Stimming Behaviors in Autism
Now, that is a controversial question. Just trying to reduce stimming without understanding the reason for stimming will likely reduce one stim, but have a more problematic stim start. Let me explain.
Stimulation is short for self-stimulatory behavior. Think of stimming as a behavior that is used to communicate. Stimulating can mean the person is happy or overwhelmed, bored, annoyed, scared, mad – anything.
As you can see the reasons for stimming vary!
Would you want to strictly reduce the stim that your child did when they were happy? Depends right? If the stim is not disruptive, then try to enjoy it, maybe join in on it because it’s your child’s way of communicating. If the stim is problematic or disruptive or somehow limits the person’s ability to experience life, then yes, reduction makes logical sense.
But let’s try to think about the reduction as reduction of behavior, but not stopping the communication. Communication is the key aspect of stimming, so try to understand what the person is communicating and then redirect that to a more appropriate expression. If speaking is difficult, then something like an AAC device might be even more preferred by that person because they might be able to commute more exactly what they’re thinking. When I think about redirecting the stim, I like to think about increasing the communication because everyone loves to feel heard and your child with autism is no exception.
They’re stimming as communicating. So if redirection is needed, let’s make it so that they can communicate even more. There are also many health issues that might cause a person to stim more. So please make sure you’re working with a great functional medicine doctor who has vast experience with autism. It makes such a difference.
Okay, let’s say they squeal when they’re happy and you want to increase ways that they can express happiness. So one option would be the AAC device.
Another option could be smiling nice and big – a big dramatic smile! Clapping or hugging.
There are so many different options to squealing, right? Squealing is like that the joy that is just exploding. Look for different ways that your child would enjoy doing that so that their joy isn’t disruptive, and it allows them to continue to experience whatever activity that is, that is bringing them such joy.
First, understand the stim. Get to know why your child is doing that behavior. Then think about ways to teach them how to communicate that emotion in different ways. Everybody loves options.
The goal would be to reduce the problematic expression and teach them several other ways to express themselves.
Is It Harmful to Stop Stimming?
Is it harmful to try to stop someone on the autism spectrum from stimming? Short answer, yes. Let me explain why.
Stimming is a shortened way of saying Self-Stimulatory behavior. Think of stimming as a behavior that’s used to communicate. Stimming can mean the person is happy or overwhelmed or bored, scared, mad, annoyed just about anything else.
Think back to when you were a child and you were told to be quiet. Sometimes it might have been appropriate. Say you were in a movie theater and you were talking because you were so excited and happy to be in the movie theater and having popcorn and all the fun stuff and your parents told you to be quiet. That seems to be appropriate.
Think back to when something wonderful happened to you and you were jumping around so excited and your parents told you to quiet down. They just didn’t want to hear about why you were so happy. They only wanted you to be quiet. That hurt, right?
Think about that question again.
Is it harmful to try to stop someone on the autism spectrum from Stimming? Hopefully, now you can see the answer clearly.
We all want to feel heard and understood. We want to be able to express ourselves whether we’re happy or sad or mad. Whatever the emotion is, we want to be able to express it.
And for those with autism, Stimming sometimes is done as a way to communicate those emotions. You can really start to understand so much about that person with autism when you pay attention to their stim.
And you can actually use stimming as a way to connect.
Now the one caveat is if the Stim is harmful to the person or it limits them from experiencing life. In those cases, teach the person with autism a way to redirect the harmful stim to a safe stim. For example, headbanging when angry, this could be redirected to so many things like stomping the feet or punching a pillow or whatever Stim they would prefer. Stimming is a way of communicating, so you definitely don’t want to just stop your child with autism from stimming. But at times you might want to redirect it in a way that is less disruptive but still allows them to communicate. You want that win-win for everybody. Start to notice the different ways your child uses Stimming as a way of communicating.
It’s a great way to start connecting with your child.
What’s the Difference Between Autistic and Non-Autistic Stimming?
Great question. We all stim at certain times in life. Let’s understand the difference.
Stimming is short for self-stimulatory behavior. Think of stimming as a behavior that is used to communicate. Stimming can mean the person is bored, mad, scared, overwhelmed, happy just about anything.
The difference between non-autistic stimming and autistic stimming mainly is seen in frequency and intensity, but not the actual stim itself (most times).
Let’s go through an example. Think of the last time you were nervous or anxious. You probably did something with your fingers. Maybe you tapped your fingers on the table or twirled your hair. I do that so much. Rub your chin. Do that too. Or play with a pen, right? Something a little fidgety with the fingers.
Now, why were you nervous or anxious? Was a teacher going to call on you in class? Did your child have a doctor’s appointment and you wanted it to go well and you’re nervous and anxious? Were you stopped at a red light and you started to think about things but then stopped when the light turned green? This is how a non-autistic person might stim in this example.
A person with autism, let’s say, who has difficulty communicating verbally might spend more time being nervous are anxious. Why? Let’s think about it. Maybe they like going for car rides but can’t ask to go to the bathroom when they’re on the car ride. That person might stim the entire car ride even though they’re doing something they enjoy they might be anxious about having to go to the bathroom and having no way to ask. As you can see, we all use self-stimulatory behavior to cope with situations and also to communicate our emotions.
Is Echolalia a Form of Stimming?
Let’s define Echolalia and then answer the question.
Stimming is short for self-stimulatory behavior. Think of Stimming as a behavior that’s used to communicate. Stimming can mean the person is overwhelmed or happy, bored, scared, mad, annoyed, pretty much anything else.
Echolalia is derived from the Greek words Echo meaning to repeat and Lalia meaning speech. So echolalia means repeat speech.
It is one of the most common echo phenomena and it is non-voluntary, automatic, and effortless pervasive behavior. Believe it or not, echolalia is a normal finding during language development in toddlers. However, those with autism can experience echolalia for years and echolalia is not exclusive to those with autism. And there are debates in the scientific literature about autism and echolalia, and there’s significant disagreement regarding how echolalia should be defined, how it should be understood, and also how it should be managed.
If you go to different therapists or experts and there are differing opinions, that’s the reason why. New research on echolalia shows deaf children with autism sometimes echo signs, just as hearing children with autism, sometimes echo words. The research does not prove definitively that echolalia is a form of stimming. It can be in some situations, but it can also be a way for a person with autism to use the speech that they can produce easily to answer questions and also communicate.
If you’d like me to create more blogs about the cutting edge research into echolalia and autism because remember, there’s a lot of debate, just let me know in the comments section what you’re most interested in, and I’ll do the research and present it to you.