There are many theories about the function of stimming, and the reasons for its increased incidence those with Autism. For hyposensitive people, it may provide needed nervous system arousal, releasing beta-endorphins. For hypersensitive people, it may provide a “norming” effect, allowing the person to control a specific sense, and is thus a soothing behavior. It can also serve as a way to communicate, or to calm down. Stimming is a natural behavior that can improve emotional regulation and prevent meltdowns in stressful situations.
I have created this Stimming Infographic to help spread awareness. Please feel free to post to your social media accounts, print out for display, and forward to professionals working with and supporting individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Autism Awareness creates Autism Acceptance
Why does Stimming Happen?
Like anyone else, people with autism stim to help themselves to manage anxiety, fear, anger, and other negative emotions. Like many people, people with autism may stim to help themselves handle overwhelming sensory input (too much noise, light, heat, etc).
Unlike most people, though, individuals with autism may also self-stimulate constantly, and stimming their ability to interact with others, take part in ordinary activities, or even be included in typical classrooms. A child who regularly needs to pace the floor or slap himself in the head is certain to be a distraction for typical students.
A few examples of this include but are not limited to:
- Emotional Regulation – When we feel an emotion or a collection of emotions very powerfully, stimming can help us manage these feelings without overloading. Often emotions like sadness, anger, or anxiety will prompt stimming as a way to both experience these less pleasant emotions while also keeping our cool. It’s equally important for many of us to stim when we experience pleasant emotions too! Hand flapping, bouncing, and toe-walking are some of the many stims that often help us regulate positive emotions.
- Sensory Regulation – Many autistic individuals and other stimmers experience hypersensitivity (bolder or more extreme sensation) or hyposensitivity (duller or more muted sensation). Many of us experience both depending on the situation and which of our senses are involved. For many people who experience more or less sensation that is typical, stimming is a way to hold onto a familiar and consistent sensation where we are completely in control.
- Social Regulation – If we are not comfortable in a social situation but would prefer to take part anyway (maybe we are making friends, attending a meeting with new coworkers, or even surrounded by our closest friends but with more people in the room than feels ok), stimming can help us interact with others the way we want to. Some of us are introverts and need a way to relieve the pressures of socializing, and others of us are very social creatures who crave daily social interaction, but need a way to stay in the moment without being overwhelmed. Many of us are even ambiverts, who need both social stimulation and the safety of isolation, and we need a way to make sure we know what we need and when. Stimming helps us do that!
- Pragmatic Regulation – Some people find other people’s stims distracting, and this is certainly something that can be addressed in situations like school or work where everyone needs to be able to focus. But often when we stim around other people, especially large groups of people, we do so in order to minimize distraction. In a crowded lecture hall with a fascinating speaker, we might want to jump up and down with excitement and ask a million questions because we are so engaged, but if we believe this will not be helpful to ourselves or our classmates in the long run, we might choose a stim like twirling our pens or rocking in our chairs to remain focused and engaged without disrupting others.
It’s not completely clear why stimming almost always goes with autism, though it’s often called a tool for “self regulation.” As such, it may well be an outgrowth of the sensory processing dysfunction that often goes along with autism. At times, stimming can be a useful accommodation, making it possible for the autistic person to manage challenging situations. When it becomes a distraction or causes physical harm to self or others, though, it must be modified.
Lessening or modifying stims can be tricky, but several approaches may be helpful. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) may help individuals to eliminate or modify some of their stimming. Occupational therapy is another useful tool.
In some cases, stimming can be reduced with medications that address underlying issues of anxiety. Finally, some people with autism can learn through practice and coaching to either change their stims (squeeze a stress ball rather than flap, for example) or engage in excessive stimming only in the privacy of their own homes.
Modified from these 2 page sources: http://what-is-stimming.org/so-what-is-stimming/ and http://autism.about.com/od/autismterms/f/stimming.htm