What everyone should know about stimming

When my son was diagnosed with autism, ‘stimming’ was one of the things that I had to quickly learn about. Once I found out what stimming was, some of my son’s unique behaviours, which had puzzled me before, began to make sense. I understood why he would sometimes need to spin round and round for a while, or why he could make the same sounds over and over again for hours. 

Over time, his stims would change and evolve. He would stim in different ways. The stims often would develop out of the blue and sometimes they would go away, and come back again. But what IS stimming? And what are the things that we all should know about this behaviour?

What is stimming?

Stimming is a range of self-stimulating behaviours that mostly involve repetitive movements or sounds. It’s a coping mechanism that can be found in both in typical and atypical development, but the behaviours are usually more distinct with autism. Stimming is one diagnostic criterion for a child undergoing testing to see if they have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). However, just because someone stims, it does not necessarily mean they have autism.

Why do we stim?

Just about everyone engages in stimming from time to time, for example, you may bite your nails, twirl a pencil or tap the table when you’re feeling nervous, bored or to relieve tension. People stim for different reasons, but usually, it’s for the following:

  • Overstimulation: To block out or get relief from excess sensory input
  • Understimulation: To help provide extra sensory input when needed
  • Self regulation: To soothe or comfort
  • Pain reduction: To help reduce the overall sensation of pain
  • Management of emotions: To respond to both positive and negative emotions, such as happiness and excitement, or stress and anxiety.


Examples of stims

Stimming can take different forms, and some may look like restlessness, for example:

  • Biting nails
  • Flapping/ clapping hands
  • Fidgeting
  • Foot-tapping
  • Shaking legs
  • Head banging
  • Spinning objects
  • Eye twitching
  • Twirling hair around fingers

There are also motor stims, which are based on repetitive movement, such as:

  • Pacing
  • Jumping
  • Rocking
  • Spinning/ twirling 
  • Running in circles

Some engage in repetitive vocal and/ or auditory stimming, like:

  • Singing
  • Making verbal noises with mouth or breath
  • Humming
  • Shrieking
  • Repeating words or phrases (echolalia) 
  • Finger tapping/ snapping
  • Tapping ears/ pencils/ surfaces

Is stimming a bad thing?

Most stimming is harmless and barely noticeable. Most of us can also recognise when and where stimming is appropriate. For example, you are aware that when you tap your fingers continuously on the table for a few minutes, it may annoy others around you, so you stop. For people with autism, however, their stimming is usually much more obvious and can go on for long periods. They are also typically socially unaware that their stimming can be disruptive to others, and will find it difficult to stop stimming when asked. 


Parents often wonder if they should stop their child from stimming. The short answer is, no, as long as the child’s stimming doesn’t harm themselves or others. We now know that stimming is calming and can help children in managing their big emotions and overwhelming situations. Therefore, stimming isn’t necessarily a bad thing that needs to be stifled. It’s also best to keep in mind that in some instances, when a child with autism isn’t able to stim, they may replace the behaviour with another one that’s not any better.


Nonetheless, there are times when incessant stimming can disrupt a child’s learning, affect their quality of life and lead to social exclusion. In rare cases, it may even be destructive and dangerous. In these cases, it would be best for the stimming to be addressed. Here are some of the ways for you to support a child who stims:


  • Teach or replace with alternative behaviours
  • Join in the stim as a way to initiate interaction and to help them become more aware of their state
  • Structure their day around the times when they would stim to provide the appropriate breaks
  • Manage the sensory and emotional environment
  • Encourage physical activities


To understand more about stimming and the strategies you can apply should your child’s stimming become disruptive, feel free to consult one of The Energy Source’s paediatric specialists.

This article was reviewed by The Energy Source’s Director, Physiotherapist and Sensory Practitioner, Joanna Hutt.

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