When it comes to autism, stimming is a massive part of being on the spectrum and just the autism community in general.
Basically, stimming stands for self-stimulatory behavior, where the individual on the spectrum might do an action of some description that helps them relax and regulate their own emotion. When autistic people engage in this behavior, the underlying cause is often that they are overstimulated by something.
But – sometimes, they can also be under-stimulated by something.
It is important to mention here that it is not just autistic people that engage in stimming. Literally, anything that you might do, such as playing with the hair and any other kind of motion that is repetitive and that you find soothing falls under the concept of stimming.
Though stimming is more commonly referred to in the autism world as autistic people tend to do it more often. Also, sometimes stimming is more noticeable in autistic people.
Some common types of autism stimming include the following:
You might be walking down the street and hear someone making repetitive sounds/ noise. This notion is also known as verbal stimming.
Basically, verbal stimming is any repetitive behavior that has something to do with verbalizing. Verbal stimming could be repeating the same words over and over again. It could also be the repeating of the same noise in a repetitive way.
Sometimes, autistic people engage in verbal stimming because they like the sensation in their throat. They could also feel the need to repeat the noise over and over again because they get a good feeling out of it.
It could also be a way for them to calm down in a stressful situation.
Smell/ Taste Stimming
Another type of stimming is related to the taste and smell. And these two types of stims interlink in different ways. Someone in the spectrum could have an obsession over a type of smell. For instance, a majority of people love the smell of lavender – but – someone on the spectrum may love and adore the smell of lavender to the extent that they might feel the need to sniff the smell consistently because they love the sensation.
With the taste side of stimming, the people on the spectrum could potentially like the texture of a certain food or the flavor of something.
Oral stimming might make an autistic person chew on things or even the inside of the mouth. They could also chew on their fingers. Some might chew on their clothes.
Now if you know an autistic individual who chews on objects – you might want to intervene and give them a clean object to chew on so that they can still get that chewing sensation.
What is Stimming for Autistic People?
To autistic people, the lights, the sounds, and the people can be an overwhelming experience. But ordering and organizing one’s pencils according to color and length might help. Autistic children display other repetitive behavior, too, such as drumming their fingers steadily.
Other typical stimming behavior can include spinning around in circles with their arms outstretched to the world. These behaviors fall under the restriction of restricted and repetitive behaviors. Repetitive behaviors are common from a young age in autistic people.
Repetitive behavior is one of the condition’s core features that are accompanied by other problems, such as a lack of social communication. Typically, the restrictive and repetitive behaviors can be categorized in the following two aspects:
Low-Order Behaviors: these behaviors are motor and sensory in nature and can include rocking back and forth, hand flapping, playing persistently with objects, spinning, and uttering sounds repeatedly.
High-Order Behaviors: these behaviors are more cognitive and typically take the form of intensely focused, nearly ritualistic habits with an insistence on routine.
Nonetheless, we cannot rule out the fact that repetitive movements occur in the regular development of all young children. But – these repetitive movements tend to persist beyond childhood in those with autism, and disruptions in typical development could also be potentially involved.
It has been researched that when autistic people engage in restricted and repetitive behavior, their brain shows more activity in the reward circuits – similar to what eating cake and winning an award would do.
This aspect could possibly explain why many people who fall on the spectrum engage in repetitive behavior or stimming regularly.
Is Intervention Good or Bad?
Many parents and caregivers of autistic children question whether and how they should intervene to control or stop repetitive behaviors. Historically, these repetitive behaviors were considered to have no inherent value, which is why it was thought best to suppress them.
And this could still be the same if the repetitive behaviors are harmful, such as head-banging. But – there has been a serious change in thinking regarding stimming. Many experts on autism now believe that some repetitive behaviors are, in fact, coping mechanisms and, as such, require more thoughtful management.
Supporting this aspect, many autistic people describe their stimming as a source of calm and focus when they feel overwhelmed or need to manage their anxiety. If autistic people have access to sunglasses and earplugs, they might need to stim less as the sunglasses and earplugs serve as a buffer against sensory overload.
Autistic people could also try out a new routine to create a greater sense of structure.
Some people with autism say that they simply enjoy engaging in stimming – similar to having a hobby. Others say that stimming is more like a way of communicating and expressing emotions. Taking these repetitive behaviors away would strip them of the benefits and might instigate frustration and withdrawal.
Parents and caregivers might enable autistic people the opportunity to perform an activity of interest, such as reading train schedules in a safe space. Nonetheless, it is essential to establish gentle boundaries, such as allowing autistic individuals to engage in the activity for a limited time.
Caregivers should also aim at striking a balance between acceptance and adaptation, as doing so can lead to great things, including enabling autistic individuals to gain new experiences, interests, and talents.