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"Stimming" is a core feature of autism, but what is it, why do autistic people do it, and how do you deal with it?

It's a novel and, to many not on the autism spectrum, unfamiliar word — "stimming". Yet we've all done it, and we'll all do it again. These activities may not, at first glance, even seem to have anything in common, but they do. Mindlessly clicking the button on a pen. Picking at the loose bits of skin around your cuticles. Playing with your hair, or feeling the beads of a necklace you're wearing. Bouncing one of your legs up and down. You don't have to be autistic to stim, and though many people would consider many of these things to be annoying, they wouldn't necessarily stand out as unusual.

The DSM-5 — the current version of the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, used to diagnose mental and neurological disorders — makes it all sound so clinical. "Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple
motor stereotypies, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases)" are, it says, one of the core features of autism.

Stimming is the word autistic people have come to use to describe these things, instead, and it's short for self-stimulatory behavior. What does this actually mean, though, and what purpose does it serve? Why might autistic people stim? And finally, how should you deal with stimming? This question is tough, because the answers will be different depending on whether you're the one stimming and dealing with people's reactions to it, or you're the one looking at someone stim and being annoying with it or wondering how you can make it stop.

What is stimming, and why do autistic people stim?

Many people will be at least slightly familiar with the idea that many autistic people rock back and forth, flap their hands, or spin around. These are all forms stimming can take, but there are many more — so many more, in fact, that it would be almost impossible to make an exhaustive list. They can be sensory, auditory, visual, and involve taste and smell. 

You'll have to make do with some examples:

  • Rubbing your fingers on a piece of clothing you are wearing
  • Chewing on a pen
  • Tapping on a table with your fingers
  • Repeating a phrase over and over, like a mantra
  • Humming along with a song
  • Smelling a familiar object intensely
  • Nail biting
  • Smoking
  • Playing with jewelry you are wearing
  • Untangling the stringy ends of a scarf
  • Playing with a fidget spinner
  • Chewing gum
  • Rocking in a chair
  • Writing lists
  • Reciting sequences of words
  • Coloring in coloring books
  • Stroking a pet
  • Lining objects up
  • Cutting play-doh
  • The feeling of a weighted blanket

Research into the topic suggests that most autistic people stim automatically, without being consciously aware of it. Certain situations are likely to trigger stimming. Confusing, overwhelming, stressful situations in which sensory overload occurs in the form of many people, bright lights, a lot of noise, weird smells, and so on, tend to cause autistic people to stim more, but "noisy thoughts" will bring it on too. These may be worries, fears, of anxious feelings. Stimming, research shows, helps autistic people regulate the intense emotions that result from these situations and allow them to better cope with . 

Stimming is not just something brought on by negative situations, however, as many autistic people report that they do it when they're feeling especially excited and stimming itself can also lead to feelings of happiness. 

Not everyone is happy with it, mind you! Before I delved into this topic, I browsed through Reddit and found more than a few posts from parents, other relatives, and coworkers of autistic people who were really annoyed by some stims and wondered how to get a person to stop them. We should also note that some stims are dangerous — grinding teeth, picking at scabs, and pulling out hair can be stims, too, and they can have negative health consequences. By the same token, intense gross motor movements may hurt either the person doing them or someone around. 

That brings us to the next question — how do you deal with stimming? 

How to deal with stimming — answers for autistic people

  • If you've developed stims that aren't safe or healthy for yourself or others, try to replace them with others that are harmless. If you like tto bite your nails, for instance, you could instead try to get a ring and twirl it around.
  • If you've developed stims neurotypical people seem to find annoying or socially inappropriate, try to replace them with less noticeable stims. One participant in an interesting study replaced hand-flapping with tennis, chess, and sailing, for instance. If you like to rub fabric, a scarf that you're wearing may be seen as more acceptable than a blanket. 
  • Some people prefer to keep public stimming to a minimum and let it all out when they're at home or among people who understand. 
  • Stim toys and jewerly are now on the market, and you may like some of them.

When dealing with people who are distracted or annoyed with your stims, you can decide to explain what you are doing and how it is helping you. You can also switch to less obvious stims in a bid to avoid bringing attention to yourself, or to make the people around you more comfortable. How you handle this is, ultimately, an individual choice. 

How to deal with stimming — answers for neurotypical people

  • If a stim looks weird to you or is mildly annoying, but not overwhelmingly so and not in a way that causes actual harm to anyone, try to get over it — stimming helps autistic people cope with stress and anxiety, and trying to stop it may cause worse stress and anxiety that may manifest in ways that annoy you more.
  • If a stim is very distracting or dangerous to anyone, ask the person to stop it — with compassion and kindness.
  • Realize that autistic people stim. Many can suppress it or do it in less obvious ways, but if you're the parent of an autistic child, please don't try to make it stop across the board, because it serves an important purpose. Consider that your child may not even be aware that they are stimming as they are doing it.
  • Consider the things you, yourself, do that are also stimming behaviors, and try to be empathetic. Understand why stimming happens, that stimming is part of who the person who's doing it is, and that neurotypical people also do many things that autistic people experience as rather unpleasant. 

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