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“He’s always done that, and we aren’t really sure why…”

“Well, he’s stimming… That’s super common in autistic kids! It’s nothing to worry about at all.”

Since my son was about two he would hit his legs or his chest really fast whenever he was excited.

It didn’t hurt him (though when he’s REALLY excited it can look like it does!) but we never really understood why he did it.

When we asked his OT about it, she was quick to explain to us that he was doing something called ‘stimming’ and that it was a perfectly natural thing for autistic people to do.

I learned more and more about it, and I’ll tell you, stimming is absolutely fascinating to me.

The different ways that people stim, the different reasons for different stims, and everything in between.

And it’s something that I get asked about quite a bit…

Questions like “how do I know if something is a stim or something else?” or “why does my autistic child stim like this?”

So today I’m going to talk all about stimming! What is stimming, and why do autistics stim?

Young child holding a green fidget spinner. Teal and Coral Text on a white overlay at the bottom reads: "What exactly is stimming and why do autistics stim?"

What is Stimming and Why Do Autistics Stim?

So if your autistic child has ‘strange’ behaviors you don’t understand, or your child’s therapist has been bringing up ‘stims’ or ‘stimming’, this post will answer your biggest questions.

First, What is Stimming?

‘Stimming’ is short for ‘Self-Stimulatory Behavior’, and essentially that means that it’s any sort of behavior (think: action) that offers a person the stimulus that they’re craving.

Oftentimes, stimming meets an important sensory need for an autistic person.

It’s SUPER important to not discourage your autistic child from stimming because it is one of several ways that autistics naturally regulate and meet our needs.

While stims might look strange, and they might even be annoying to others, as long as they aren’t truly harmful they should mostly be left alone.

What Does Stimming Look Like?

Stimming can look like a lot of different behaviors.

Some traditional stims that people think of include things like:

  • Flapping arms
  • Spinning in circles
  • Rocking back and forth
  • Head-banging
  • Hitting a body part

But there are tons of other stims that people do that aren’t quite as noticeable or recognizable.

Basically, any action or behavior that’s done (often repetitively) to stimulate the body or fulfill some need is a stim.

Do Non-Autistic People Stim?

Here’s where a lot of people get confused.

While stimming is thought to be a clear sign of autism, neurotypical people stim as well.

The difference is, neurotypical stims are seen more regularly, so they are more socially acceptable and seen as ‘normal’.

  • Tapping a pencil
  • Chewing fingernails
  • Twirling hair
  • Bouncing legs

All of those are examples of stims that neurotypical people often use, but most people wouldn’t recognize them as stims at all.

Why Do Autistics Stim?

Simply put, autistics stim to meet a need.

Our bodies and brains need to stim, and it can sometimes even be painful if we try to prevent or avoid our stims.

In some ways, it’s like an itch. Our brains and bodies can obsess about it until we are able to satisfy the need.

Stimming can also offer us a specific type of sensory input that essentially drowns out other sensory input that we have less control over.

For example, many autistics hum as a stim which helps drown out the random noises happening around them that may otherwise cause sensory overwhelm.

It’s so important to understand that stims aren’t just a habit that autistics have, but an absolutely vital part of the way our brains and bodies self-regulate.

So understanding and encouraging your child to use their stims to meet their individual needs will help them to confidently be who they are and it will help them stay more regulated to help avoid autistic burnout or autism meltdowns!

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