“Stimming” or self-stimulation is a natural behavior, remarkable for repetitive behaviors that serve to release excess mental, physical, and/or emotional energy. Stimming can be described as repetitive activity, body movement and/or repetitive manipulation of objects for the purposes of sensory reinforcement, regulation and/or stimulation.*

photo of brown flowers
Stims… not Stems… Photo by kokokara on Pexels.com

Everyone stims, not just autistic people. How many of us pick at or even bite our fingernails, twirl our hair, bounce one (or both) legs or drum on things with our fingers or hands? All these and more are examples of behaviors most everyone has. For autistics, stimming is a key tool in diffusing, even expelling excess energy, anxiety and intrusive thinking. For everyone, recognizing stimming as an important need is vital to growing healthy boundaries and relationships.

What does Stimming look like?

For me, stimming takes a few forms:

  • For emotional regulation:
    Playing Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes
    Biking (specifically biking home)
    Yoga (a straightforward asana sequence I learned years ago)
  • For over-stimulation:
    DJ’ing/Mixing, jamming on bass or keys
  • For focus/presence with others, in discussion
    Playing Disc Golf

Why Do People Stim?

When I was in college, taking special education methodology classes as an K-9 Education major, the prevailing narrative (theory) was that there could be a brain dysfunction in the areas controlling these behaviors or that the behaviors produce endorphins in the nervous system. Research suggests that non-autistic people often misunderstand the behavior of autistic folk*, likely contributing to communication challenges experienced by an autistic person trying to participate in (what I’d call) a monoculture.

Systems like Applied Behavior Analysis aim to curb stimming in autistic individuals so that they may present (mask) in ways that might have less friction when participating within monoculture. For people in the monoculture, this appears to be an obvious approach to communication challenges, but as I alluded to previously, this really is only a pragmatic option if, and only if the autistic person is in a stable and consistent environment. Otherwise it’s inherently rigid as a methodology and often at the detriment of increasing friction and anxiety for the autistic person — frustrations that aren’t shared/felt across stakeholders in relationships.

What to Do About Stimming?

As a child, I was actively discouraged from stimming behaviors. I used to sing a lot to myself, in addition to bouncing my legs — such behaviors were called out/not tolerated by my parents. I’m certainly not alone in that, but I do remember the embarrassment/shame from being called out in a restaurant to “Stop be-bopping!” or shouted at from the front seat of a car “Can you sit still?!” I’m hardly alone in my generation in getting this kind of heat from my parents.

Do what you can to not to be that kind of parent, boss, partner or friend that remarks on whatever it is people are doing to try and be present in a moment with you. We’ll get into boundaries as a topic in a whole other (probably set of) post(s), but for now — it suffices to share: know well your boundaries so you can support and respect other peoples’ boundaries. If you do nothing else but this, you’ll have done a lot. Workplace Flexibility is something my employer started in 2019 to ensure all managers were ready to support flexible ways of working — basically that if people want to work remotely, they can, and if there are expectations for people to need to be in the office, make them clear and make them count. This did wonders for the company’s ability to maintain and grow our day-to-day operations when the pandemic hit in 2020 and it did a sea-change in providing me and other folks on the spectrum the policy cover to work as we need to. Over three years in, this program has been a massive success.

Why Stimming Matters

I suppressed stimming behaviors for a very long time until after my diagnosis when I had to kinda teach myself to stim again… which involved a lot of self-talk out of the shame that was associated with these behaviors when I was a kid… to a point when I could advocate for my needs as an adult at home.

Early in 2021, just two months after I was formally diagnosed, we had finished a major home remodeling project that produced our finished basement. At that point, we didn’t know much about what my autism was going to mean for our family, but after just one night of allowing myself to just dance to music for myself, sway in a rhythm, I knew I was going to need a safe space for me to burn off excess energies, alone if I wanted to be. At home we decided that the office/studio/bedroom in the basement would be a place I could set up shop and stim, out of the way of any judging looks, and if I step outside to the backyard with the dogs, it’s understood it’s me taking a moment to regulate so I can get back to being more present.

Recognizing the need to stim was key to me feeling better and more focused. Others around me recognizing my ways of stimming and needs for reduce the social friction for me to participate with them. Me recognizing all *that* has made me a better parent, partner and manager.

  1. https://www.research.chop.edu/car-autism-roadmap/stimming-what-is-it-and-does-it-matter ↩︎
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6728747/ ↩︎