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What is "Stimming" and should I stop my child from doing it?



Stimming refers to self-stimulating behaviors that usually involves repetitive physical movements, sounds, words or moving objects. Although stimming is characteristically associated with people on the Autism spectrum, most of us ‘neurotypicals’ tend to do some form of self-stimulation actions in our day-to-day activities as well. For example, some of us may tap the surface of the table or shake our legs when bored, or chew our fingernails when feeling anxious. The only difference is that neurotypical stims typically occur and tend to be less obvious as they are more socially accepted as ‘normal’ behaviors. Stimming behaviors in neurotypical people also tend not to last long, as we realise social cues quickly and understand when these behaviors are inappropriate.


For people with Autism however, their stims tend to last longer and are more noticeable. Typically, these behaviors help them to relax, and to regulate their emotions or behavior when they are overstimulated or overwhelmed by their surroundings. They can vary in intensity and type and can occur due to a variety of emotions (i.e. stress, excitement, happiness, anxiety, fear, boredom).


Some stimming behaviors include:

1) Tactile: Tapping surfaces, touching certain materials

2) Visual: Peering out of the corner of the eyes, Hand flapping/flicking of fingers, staring at lights or moving objects (fidget spinner)

3) Auditory: Echolalia (repetition of other’s words or sentences), vocalizing (grunting, humming, making high-pitched noises)

4) Olfactory: Taste and smell certain items repetitive (spicy food)

5) Oral stimming: chew on inside of mouth, chew fingernails or clothing material

6) Vestibular: Twirling, body rocking, jumping


So is stimming bad and should you stop your child from doing it?

The short answer is no. Stimming is something that is automatically reinforcing, that innately feels good and calming to the person, and helps them to modulate their feelings better. As long as the behaviors are not inflicting hurt to themselves or on others, stimming should be allowed. Requesting a child to stop might result in the child needing an alternative means to fulfill the sensory need, and if not redirected appropriately, the child might replace it with a ‘worse behavior’. Hence, it is important to understand why the stimming behavior is occurring, whether it is interfering with their wellbeing and/or learning, and whether the child is capable of redirecting themselves.


Here are some examples to consider to help enrich the environment and engage your child in other parts of their bodies, or other activities that are more socially appropriate:


Tactile: Replace tapping of surfaces with engaging in arts and crafts, puzzles, building blocks, fidget spinner etc.

Visual: Replace staring out the corner of the eyes with using a light up toy and getting them to track the light.

Auditory: Replace echolalia with engaging your child in conversation or script with your child.

Olfactory: Provide lotions and oils that are safe for your child, or create smell jars for educational purposes

Oral stimming: Providing a chewable snack/gum or engage them in conversation to redirect from chewing other things

Vestibular: Replace twirling/spinning with going on a swing, dancing to music, or doing other physical activities like running or jumping on the trampoline.


In conclusion, it is important to understand the objective of the stimming behavior, and only to redirect to other replacement behaviors when it is harmful or interferes with their wellbeing and/or learning. Essentially, stimming is a part of all of us, and is part of our personalities. Hence, we should learn to accept and respect our student or child’s special ways of coping with their emotions and environment.


Written by:

Pamela Ng

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