One of the most beautiful discussions I’ve ever seen on stimming is the YouTube video “In My Own Language” by silentmiaow / Mel Baggs (which is about so much more than stimming; it is also about communication, thought, and personhood). The first 3 minutes and 13 seconds are of Amanda stimming — playing with water, humming, rocking, scraping a belt(?) against a surface, swinging a chain around, rubbing the ribbed top of a step-stool, flapping a receipt/piece of paper, rubbing zir face in a book. The rest of the video is zir “translating” while zie continues to stim :
“Far from being purposeless, the way that I move is an ongoing response to what is around me. Ironically, the way that I move when responding to everything around me is described as ‘being in a world of my own’ whereas if I interact with a much more limited set of responses and only react to a much more limited part of my surroundings, people claim that I am ‘opening up to true interaction with the world.’ They judge my existence, awareness, and personhood on which of a tiny a limited part of the world I appear to be reacting to.”
Mel touches on so many important points in that video. Please, watch it if you can.
The Stimming Checklist has a list of over 1441 behaviors that count as “stimming”. There’s a form to submit a new stim if your stimming behavior somehow isn’t already on that list (I checked for a few of my stims that I don’t hear about as often, like squeezing my nose and applying pressure to my feet. They’re there. I did add one that I didn’t see after several different queries: squishing spit inside of my mouth).
So, what is a “stim” (besides a type of berry in the video game Ark)?
A stim, short for “self-stimulation”, is something that a person does to stimulate their senses their senses in some way.
Just about everyone does this in some form — clicking a pen, swinging their feet, twirling their hair, clicking their tongue, tracing an interesting pattern with their eyes, listen to the same song over and over: we do things to cause a sensation to be present that was not already present. This stimming / fidgeting serves several functions, according to people who have researched the topic in individuals with AD(H)D and in the general population: to overcome the perceived lack of stimulation when one is bored (and, thus, to distract the “bored” parts of the brain from being “bored”); to soothe overwhelm or frazzle; to help us retain information by adding repetition to the scene (repetition seems to have a memory-enhancing effect).
All of these things are true when autistic people stim, too. Stimming helps us to regulate our emotions, our attention, and our sensory perception. We are better able to engage with the environment when we can interact with the environment in our own way — stimming.
What perhaps makes stimming “different” in autism is the extent and the obviousness of it. The stims listed above tend to be less noticeable, smaller-movement stims, but autistic people may also do things like flap their hands, jump up and down, spin, rock, clap, squeal, slap themselves — things more likely to draw attention to ourselves.
In autistic people, not only can stimming help regulate or soothe emotions, but it can also help express emotions.
Flapping, for example, is often seen as an expression of happiness in the flapper. This isn’t true for all autistics who flap, though — when I flap, it is generally out of frustration (unless I flap AND jump at the same time — THEN I’m happy or just really full of energy). Rocking can express fear or overwhelm…though it can also express focus and interest and even connection if a person is rocking with other people or alongside music/a speech.
[Angry Flap Description: A light-skinned female with short brown hair and black glasses wearing a tye-dye shirt, multi-colored tights, and a bronze snake twist necklace. She is flapping her hand rapidly and strongly. She has a slight scowl on her face. There is red text at the bottom of the gif that reads “Angry Flap”.]
[Happy Flap Description: A light-skinned female with short brown hair and black glasses wearing a tye-dye shirt, multi-colored tights, and a bronze snake twist necklace. She is jumping and flapping both of her hands. She is smiling. There is green text at the bottom of the gift that reads “Happy Flap”.]
Stimming is natural, stimming is useful, and most stims should not be discouraged, trained-away, or stopped.
There are a few exceptions: if a person is causing physical harm to themselves — beating/banging their head hard enough to cause concern (gentle banging is generally okay, especially if against softer surfaces) or picking their skin to the point of bleeding — or to others, then, yes, this behavior needs to be redirected and hopefully replaced with another stim.
But in most cases, stimming is not harmful.
There is somewhat of a danger with obvious stims in public: people may stare, and some even comment or express disgust, concern, or confusion (though there are plenty of people who are perfectly fine with going about their business). This is a problem with the public, however, and not with stimming itself. There is, as Mel mentioned in her video, a very limited set of behaviors that are considered “acceptable”; everything else is considered “odd” and, thus, problematic (I have always been confused by the supposed connection between “odd” and “problematic”, though). For this reason, many autistic people who regularly are in public and/or who are in work and school use discreet stim toys/items like fidget cubes or squishables or stim/chew jewelry. or use less noticeable / more “common” stims like tapping their feet or clicking a pen or playing with their tongue inside of their mouth But some must stim obviously in public, and that is nothing to be ashamed of.
There is a tendency in some types of behavioral therapy to repress stims, especially obvious stims, for the sake of being “indistinguishable from peers” and from “not standing out”. While I don’t condemn people who want to repress or re-train certain stims for their own happiness/desire to do so, I am very much against people being pushed into this type of therapy and mindset against their will. Autistic people are “different” from our peers via the fact that we’re autistic. While everyone stims, autistic people may need to stim more often or in different ways because we are more overwhelmed by our environment or need more/different types of input to direct our focus which may be even more impacted by executive functioning issues than our peers or need to stim to regulate emotionality. Stimming, even if it draws attention, is much preferable to a meltdown or to a shutdown. It is also preferable to being extremely uncomfortable in our own skins.
In an ideal world, people would react to autistic stimming like the guests of Carly Fleischmann’s show “Speechless” react to her movements. She rocks, picks her fingers/nose, touches her face/chest, scrunches her face, groans/vocalizes — obvious stims. But she also asks questions and makes comments — generally funny and insightful ones — through her text-to-speech device, and the guests respond to those questions and insights. They treat her like the person she is. They see and notice the stims, I’m sure, but they don’t draw unnecessary attention to the stims. They let Carly be Carly, and they have a great time with a great person because of it.
This is the world that I hope that we can create for autistic people (and for everyone who stims): a world where stims are noticed, maybe redirected if they’re harmful, but are accepted as the helpful, natural movements they are.
These are my stims (probably not all of them listed because there are a LOT of stimming behaviors):
*Pulling my fingers backward
*Popping my finger joints
*Squeezing/pulling my nose
*Twiddling/shaking my fingers
*Swishing spit/saliva inside of my mouth
*Biting the inside of my mouth
*Tapping my fingers
*Tapping my feet
*Holding things to my ear and tapping on them (you can thank ASMR for this one)
*Tapping objects little water bottles/phones against myself
*Bolting (running quickly for a short period of time)
*Flapping and jumping
*Jumping by itself
*Swinging on swings
*Swinging my feet when the dangle off the floor (which, being that I’m short, is pretty often when I’m sitting in chairs)
*Slinging around beads/strings/necklaces
*Squeezes all my muscles tightly
*Making noises (beep / meep / eep / meow / boop / growling)
*Walking on my toes
*Squeezing/pulling my neck
*Playing with my fidget cube
*Playing with my snake twist necklace
*Playing with zippers/clasps on purses, packs, and booksacks
*Visually tracing patterns in the floor/wall/bricks/blinds
*Bouncing on my exercise ball
*Scrunching my face (similar to squeezing muscles, I guess)
*Putting weight on my legs/feet/lower half of my body
*Rubbing my face into pillows/sheets
*Pressing my head into the wall/hard surfaces
*Running my fingers across coarse/rough textures (like Kinetic Sand)
*Biting the skin off of my lips
*Grinding my teeth (this is actually not super healthy)
*Chattering my teeth together
*Squeezing/pulling my ears
*Pressing my tongue against my teeth
*Standing on the side of my feet
*Walking on my heels
*Setting the air in my car to blow hot air on me
*Listening to the same song repeatedly (current stim-song is “Stay Alive” by Social Repose)
*And so much more!
How many of these do you do? Be honest: probably at least a few, right?
Your stims are valid, and you are valid. Stim freely.