What is “stimming” and what does it look like?
Stimming is when an autistic person engages in a repetitive behavior in order to self regulate and calm down. It can be auditory and verbal, tactile, visual, vestibular, or olfactory. I want to break those down into categories just to give you an idea of what each of those looks like in terms of what you may see someone with Autism doing.
First off, we have the verbal and/or auditory stim. This can be observed as someone who is saying the same word over and over again. My son likes to use the word “carrot” and I have no clue why that is the word he likes best. He will be in the car and start loudly saying, “carrot carrot carrot carrot” very quickly for what seems like forever. He also taken to humming Jingle Bells repeatedly to himself.
One example of an auditory stim is to take your hands, cover up your ears, and then quickly uncover and recover them. It can be snapping of the fingers, clapping your hands, tapping your ears, anything that either causes noise to occur or changes the sounds that you are receiving from around you.
Tactile stimming is in the form of touch. Killian responds well with deep pressure sensory input/output. He likes to crash into things and people. When he starts having a hard time processing things around him he likes to have big hugs where we squeeze him tight. Other tactile stims could be snapping a rubber band on the wrist, squeezing of the hand or other body part, massage, opening closing fists, hitting or slapping objects, and rubbing or scratching oneself.
The next stim is a visual stim. Killian loves glitter and fixates on it. I made him a glitter sensory bottle that he likes. For a couple of months, he was having trouble at school with staying in line and keeping up with the class because he would see small amounts of glitter that had fallen on the ground and he had to stop to find each and every piece. He would then come home off the bus over an hour later with it still in his hand. He had kept it there and would rotate his hand around so the light would catch the sparkles at different angles. Geodes are also a big source of excitement for him. It sparkles and shines with the addition to having different textures throughout.
More examples of visual stims may include watching your hands as they are flapped around, staring out blankly in a focused area, rapidly blinking, or changing the lighting in a room by flickering the switch. All of these are a way for the person to create a sensory input/output.
Vestibular, or more commonly known as the sense of balance, is another very common stim that you will see when someone with Autism is experiencing high levels of stress or agitation. Rocking back and forth or side to side, jumping up and down, and spinning. Killian loves to spin. I joke about how he doesn’t seem to have an equilibrium because he can spin around in circles for 10 minutes and when he stops is able to walk normal and shows no signs of being dizzy. Meanwhile, just watching him spin makes me dizzy.
Aromatherapy is a form of olfactory stimming. Recently, Killian’s therapist, Gina, brought out some awesome Mr. Sketch scented markers (hello elementary school flashbacks!) and he would spend the entire hour sitting quietly just sniffing all the different markers and lining them up in which order he liked them best. Since he is almost 5, he of course had a very colorful nose by the end of the session. They even decided to color on himself which made him over the moon. Other olfactory stims would be tasting and licking objects that are not meant for the mouth. When Killian was younger, not as often anymore but it still occurs, he would come up and start licking people’s arms.
Stimming is used to help a person calm themselves out of a stressful situation. It can be used to stimulate someone who is not getting enough sensory stimulation or it can act as a calming tool for one to fixate on in an effort to block out all of the input around them. It’s a form of easing anxiety and can also be a way of communication. It lets others know that they are felling distressed or frustrated and need help.
Unfortunately, some stims may be self-harmful. Excessive hair pulling (trichotillomania), hitting themselves, and scratching and pulling skin off (dermatillomania) are just a few examples of those destructive stims. These are the most painful for outsiders to watch.
Agony Autie has a fantastic video that is only a few minutes long that explains stimming and what those can look like for her.
Stimming has been dubbed as something bad because it is not in societies norm. However, even neurotypicals express stimmulatory behaviors in small ways that go unnoticed such as tapping the foot, shaking and leg up and down while at a desk, rapping your fingers on the tabletop, clicking of the tongue, or biting your lip. These behaviors have been made commonplace or are either so subtle that others around you are unaware of them occurring.
Telling someone with Autism to stop stimming is more destructive. Their actions are how they are able to process the outside world. Doodling on a paper may be a way that someone is able to take in the information being presented to them or avoiding eye contact is how they can focus on what is being said because if they were to look you in the eye, they would become distracted and end up not hearing a word you just said.
Occupational therapy is one way to help the person struggling with harmful stims adopt positive outlets of expressing overstimulation. Fidgets and other sensory tools along with some accommodations are great ways of creating a safe stim. In some cases, a doctor and parent may decide that medication is needed to help curb the severity of a behavior.
At the end of the day we all just want our loved ones safe and secure. But one thing to remember is that safety and security looks different for everyone.
-The Lazy Mama