Stimming In Autism: Meaning, Examples & Causes

Stimming is consistent and repeating gestures that people with autism sometimes do to help them calm down, particularly during a situation where they may feel helpless or nervous.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
September 20, 2023
min read

Key Facts About Stimming

Stimming is defined by odd and repeating movements and gestures. The people that do it might often make strange noises. It allows some people with autism, namely children and adolescents, to better control their emotions and cope with their surroundings.

In the chance the stimming impacts a child in a way that's undermining, options should be considered by parents on how to lower stimming. Lifestyle changes or even a quick switch up to one's environment could help.

What Is Stimming?

Stimming is consistent and repeating gestures that people with autism sometimes do to help them calm down, particularly during a situation where they may feel helpless or nervous.

Additionally, stimming is characterized by the following actions:

  • Biting of the nails during feelings of anxiety - Biting nails is done by many people, including those without any such disorder. The biting, if carried out for long enough, could sufficiently damage the fingernails and even morph into a form of self-harm. However, nail biting is typically over once the person doing it is removed from where they want to be.
  • Hair twirling during periods of boredom - Sitting idly while in a public setting, or even at home, raises the chance of someone with autism playing with their hair in a way that becomes compulsive. When done severely, hair pulling may ensure, or even a small loss of hair in people's children with thin roots.
  • Hand flapping - Hand flapping usually happens when there's something for the person doing it to get excited about. It's probably a temporary stim but is also known to be a common symptom of autism in general. However, hand flapping can become compulsive and a reaction to anything that leads to excitement, even when it's over something not necessarily positive.
  • Foot jiggling - Being able to concentrate on one thing is easy for many autistic people. Trying to do it while in the company of others, or focusing on multiple objects, could lead to foot jiggling. It may help them concentrate better but also be noticeable to others nearby.
  • Distracting stims - These are stims done for destructive purposes, things that temporarily relieve stress and anxiety.

Stimming is more common than some may realize. Both people with and without autism do it for self-regulatory purposes.

Still, it's not always easily noticeable most of the time. Some might not use stimming very often, only on rare occasions. Others learn how to maintain their behavior to stop themselves from repeating it over and over.

Individuals with autism are more frequent and severe. They take in sensory input differently from others, having experiences that are far more intense than common folk with no disorders.

They might engage in frequent jumping and hand flapping during bouts of excitement, particularly when there's something around that piques their interest. The behavior isn't thought of as typical since many learn it over an extended period, and how to control their reaction and feeling through it.

Common Stimming Behaviors

Here are more frequent stimming behaviors.

Common Stimming Behaviors
  • Knuckle cracking - This is one done by people without them putting much thought into it. Knuckle cracking might be one of the most popular swimming engagements done, aside from hair twirling. Popping knuckles releases air that's trapped in between the cartilage, making a popping sound when the hands and feet are moving in a certain way. Autistic people do it and so do many that aren't diagnosed. Still, those with ASD may carry out knuckle cracking more excessively.
  • Drumming of the fingers - Finger drumming isn't done when someone taps their hands on a desk, at least sometimes. It's when someone hits their fingers on a surface in a way that simulates the noise that a drum makes, typically a bass drum. The sound could be appealing and quickly become repetitive though annoying to other people that are nearby.
  • Pencil tapping - This is almost identical to finger drumming, though with the use of a pencil. Pencil drumming is louder and may produce the effect that the person doing it wishes to resemble a favorite piece of music. But for anyone with autism, drumming could come naturally, either in a rhythmic pattern or in a more cacophonous way.
  • Whistling - whistling, when done correctly, can produce a long stream of noise that lowers nervousness and agitation. ASD people can do this in repetition, possibly when alone or in an area where there's lots of noise. The whistling could mask an audible sound that they don't want to hear and is bothering them, yet cannot move away from.

This list isn't exhaustive. There are more behaviors related to stimming, such as rocking back and forth. Rocking people has to be done in a chair but can take place anywhere, even when sitting down on a floor.

Rocking back and forth can temporarily lower one's anxiety and stress levels, so it's a common stim for those with autism to do as a coping mechanism. Bouncing around is another or jumping and twirling around in places when happy, excited, or even upset.

Pacing and walking on tiptoe may occur when there's a need for someone to feel not noticed, whether in public or at home. During very high-stress levels, hair twirling could turn into hair pulling, enough for such to pull the roots out.

There's also repetition in phrases used, where someone compulsively blurts out something repeatedly, loudly, or as a whisper, helping them to ease up the agitation.

Repetition of phrases is common when someone says something that the person with autism might want to remember, or that sounds appealing to them. Scratching and skin rubbing are commonly seen also, pushing into self-harm when excessively done.

This can develop into rash or skin problems if the behavior isn't addressed especially in young people with the disorder. Blinking repeatedly is common since it distracts when it is a situation where one meets their gaze, is talking to them, or is being talked about by someone else.

An intense stare down with oscillating objects, like fans, has been documented, as have the random rearrangement of different objects that are close by.

Additionally, autistic kids could spend much of their time arranging their possessions, like toys, instead of entertaining themselves with figurines. Strange obsessions over things that others wouldn't give much thought into have been noted.

Some behaviors deemed repetitive can lead to harm and injury.

Head banging is common in small children and could be repeated until their parents force them to stop. Punching and biting at objects and other people can happen when tantrums and preset, or even usual screaming. Picking at scabs from previous bouts of self-harm could occur, resulting in permanent scarring.

The most common place for this is the arms and legs, but someone even the face. Attempts to swallow dangerous objects can end up in serious risk to a child's health, and this has unfortunately been linked to the most extreme forms of stimming in autistic people.

Examples Of Stimming

Examples of stimming include a child being placed in a setting where they begin to feel anxious, leading them to distract from the experience by forcefully bending their arms in a way that causes pain.

Since it's characterized by repetition, these instances can carry on long after the person engaged in them is taken out of the situation that started it in the first place.

Some of what they do can be seen as normal. Many people with hair that's long enough will twirl it, whether they're nervous or not.

It helps keep them distracted from the things they don't find interesting, or in situations, they want to get out of.

Another example of timing is opening and closing doors. Moving the door also counts as this but is done numerous times, even until exhaustion from the experience.

Flipping lights on and off may keep someone distracted, especially when close to a sensory overload when in a bright room. Some take their hands and place them over their ears in a motion that creates a whooshing noise, yet another distraction from their settings.

Causes Of Stimming

Stemming can be caused by numerous things. Here they are as follows:

causes of stimming
  • Too much stimulation - Stimming allows one to shield themselves from too much sensory input coming from their environment.
  • Too little stimulation - When bored or having little to do, under stimulation can add the sensory input that's needed to keep them calm.
  • Reduction of pain - Banging the head repeatedly on hard objects might seem as painful. Yet for some with ASD, this action can cause them to feel numb, lowering the sensation of pain after repeated attempts. Medical researchers continue to study children that engage in this form of stimming and self-harm, realizing that the causes are possibly related to beta-endorphins being released into the body by the brain. This causes brief pleasure at the sensation of pain, so to speak.
  • Trying to manage emotions - Attempting to take control of the emotions that are felt can lead to stimming. People often experience physical reactions when they're excited about something, such as their favorite team scoring a homerun at a baseball match. Jumping up and down is common and acceptable by the general public when this happens. But for the autistic, trying to keep a hold of themselves can make them fall into physically demanding behaviors that are the same. When frustrated beyond what one can bear, the repetitions become destructive to themselves, their environment, and the people around them.
  • Regulation of self - Not all stims are harmful. Some are even soothing, like an infant sucking their thumbs or a pacifier.

Benefits Of Stimming

Stimming can allow for better self-regulation. It allows those with autism, and the public in general, to better regulate their feelings in different situations they come across.

Benefits Of Stimming

When a person with the disorder has the feeling of rush, their energy has to go into something. So long as what it goes into isn't harmful, like gently tapping on something, it's not of too much concern. It also can be a boost to one's mental state.

How To Manage Stimming

The best way to manage stimming is by understanding the reason for it occurring. As behavior is a type of communication, other people nearby can help the person doing it by knowing what it is they're trying to convey.

managing stimming in autism

How Stimming Affects Children And Teenagers With Autism

Although stimming isn't always a bad thing for people with autism to do, it can make it harder for some children and teenagers to find friends when the behavior appears odd to their peers.

If the people they associate with know why they're doing it, they become a great asset to their self-esteem.

Helping Autistic Children With Stimming

Autistic people are sometimes encouraged to stim since it helps in the management of overwhelming emotions. Yet if the timing is becoming excessive to the point of self-harm, parents should look into changing the environment they're in.


Is stimming a form of autism?

Stimming isn't a form of autism, but it is a symptom. However, since stimming is found in individuals that don't have the disorder, it's a feature of the general public.

Is stimming a form of autism?

Is stimming harmful?

Although stimming isn't always dangerous, it can result in lasting emotional, physical, and social damage. This is considering that the stimming done is violent, like banning the head and pulling out hair.

Can tests diagnose the cause of stimming?

Stimming is a feature found in autistic individuals but not used to diagnose any condition. For autism to be diagnosed requires numerous tests that have nothing to do with stimming.

Can you have stimming and not be autistic?

Yes, stimming can occur in people that don't have autism. While people on the spectrum do it more often, others diagnosed with similar disorders engage in it as well. Stimming is also a feature found in those with ADHD.

How do I know if I stim?

Stimming can be noticed when people resort to repetitive behaviors that tend to involve them doing something to cope with where they are.

It's sometimes hard for people to see themselves stem, though others around might be able to help since they're more likely to notice the repetition.

Is stimming a part of anxiety?

Stimming isn't a part of anxiety. Instead, it's used as a way to avoid anxiety coming forth. However, some forms of stimming can lead to anxious feelings since constant motion may result in irrational fear.

Is stimming a coping mechanism?

It's a coping mechanism that's done for numerous reasons, most often to stimulate senses or lower their threshold to an overload of senses.

steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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