Stimming:The Good and Bad Side of Anxious Behaviours

What is stimming? Stimming – or stims – are a wide variety of self-stimulating behaviours that people with autism may exhibit when experiencing sensory overload or high levels of anxiety. Stimming can be a repetitive motion such as hand flapping, rocking, repetition of words or phrases (echolalia), vocalizations, or even the repetitive movement of objects. Stimming still puzzles many neurotypicals, who often want to eradicate or control stims. While stimming may seem alarming or strange to the rest of us, these behaviours do serve a purpose for those on the spectrum.

What Does Stimming Do That Is Positive?

Stimming can help a person with ASD deal with sensory overload, and anxiety in a postive way. A very good blog post from The Mighty explains in detail what those with ASD experience when stimming and why they need to do it. Some examples of stimming are rocking, hand flapping, head banging, stroking a piece of cloth; all can serve as a calming strategy. As one woman with ASD explains:

“Sometimes when I feel overwhelmed, upset or angry, I need to let it out. I feel antsy when I’m over stimulated, so I need to move around and let out some noise. It’s the only way I know how to cope. It calms me down. A common one for me is humming loudly to myself (sometimes with my ears plugged or covered) and most commonly, I’ll bounce my leg. It’s involuntary, so I don’t always realize I’m bouncing my leg. It bothers some people, but I can’t help it.”

Temple Grandin described stimming this way:

“When I did stims such as dribbling sand through my fingers, it calmed me down. When I stimmed, sounds that hurt my ears stopped. Most kids with autism do these repetitive behaviours because it feels good in some way. It may counteract an overwhelming sensory environment, or alleviate the high levels of internal anxiety these kids typically feel every day.”

Chris Bonnello from Autistic Not Weird points out that many non-autistic people exhibit stimming behaviours as well – they just aren’t as visible.

“What’s it like to stim? You tell me. Most non-autistic people impulsively tap their feet, drum their fingers or let out exasperated sighs. They’re all natural forms of self-expression. The theory behind autistic stimming is the same — we’re just the ones who get called out for expressing ourselves more visibly than you!”

What is harmful stimming?

Stims that are uncontrollable, occur excessively in inappropriate settings, or prevent a child from socially acceptable interaction, may need to be addressed. Far more serious are unhealthy stims like self-injurious behaviors. These can include hair pulling, biting, hitting oneself, hitting the head against something in a harmful way, or picking/nail biting to the point of injury. Why would a person engage in self injuring stimulation? Possibly because their overload or source of anxiety is so overwhelming, it requires a much more serious stimulation to block it out.  As Kristen Lindsmith points out in her blog post on stimming – pain is the one sensation that will overwhelm all others.

“If you walk into a house with too many cats you may cringe at the strong scent of kitty litter, but if you stay and hang around you’ll stop noticing the smell. This isn’t about attention, this is a physiological reaction. You really do stop smelling the cat pee. But if you’re in pain, you won’t acclimate to it. As long as the reason for the pain is still present, your nervous system will keep on sending you those signals. Not only that, but it will prioritize that sensation above others.”

What Can You Do To Help Someone Stop Harmful Stimming?

CBC recently featured a story about a young man who resides in a lock down unit in a hospital in Nova Scotia. Matthew Meisner is severely affected by autism and engages in the dangerous side of self-stims. When you read about how Matthew spends his day and how he is supported, it breaks your heart. His quality of life does not need to be what it is now. The Low Arousal Approach from the UK deals with challenging behaviour and how to manage it. This approach advocates for no restraints or punitive consequences for behaviour. Listed below are the two main techniques to gently help a person who engages in harmful stimming.

  1. Remove the cause. When this type of overload stimming is occurring, the problem stimulus that is causing the overload must be removed. It’s best if you can address what is causing the overload behaviour to ramp up, and pre-emptively remove the stressor BEFORE overload happens and harmful stimming starts. I have written about how to understand what autistic overload is in a past blog post that has some helpful tips.
  2.  Redirect to something less harmful. What do you do if you can’t remove the overload stressor, or can’t figure out what it is? Redirect the behaviour while still addressing the need for stimulation. See if you can redirect the person to a comfort stim that is less harmful. If they are really in overload mode, this might mean choosing other painful but safe coping stims like holding an ice cube, listening to loud music, or drawing on a piece of paper with a pencil until it is entirely black. Working with the person who is having the behaviours to find something that works and isn’t going to harm them is the key.

Kirsten Lindsmith’s blog is one of the best posts I’ve read on the self-injurious side of stimming. Kirsten is on the spectrum herself and gives strategies for both the autistic individual and the caregiver. I rarely see advice for both people involved in an article. With the advent of greater understanding, education, and the development of methods like the Low Arousal Approach, I hope that people like Matthew Meisner will be helped through a gentle approach that will empower both the person with the harmful behaviours and the person who is trying to help them stop.

Further Reading

From Anxiety to Meltdown

Understanding and Treating Self-Injurious Behavior in Autism


Reference Article

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