In very intense situations or environments, everyone has their ways of regulating how they feel and how they process what is happening from external and internal stimuli. They either bite their nails, twirl their hair, or bounce their leg, and for the most part, these are all forms of coping that is socially acceptable in certain cultures. But for the neurodivergent community, specifically individuals on the autism disorder spectrum, their ways of regulating or coping are seen as unacceptable or weird and are often marginalized for showing those behaviors.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders states that autistic people show repetitive, rhythmic, and stereotyped motor movements. These movements have been classified as “stims” and include hand flapping and rocking. Over the years, stimming has been so closely related to autism, that “stims” has become an interchangeable term for “autistic behaviors” (Kapp, Steward, Crane, Elliot, Elphick, Pellicano, Russel, 2019). Stimming has been proven as a way for autistic people to modulate and regulate inconsistent sensory input and internal turmoil, such as anxiety or distress. Essentially, it is a control mechanism that provides relief to any hyperarousal, whether it be internal or external.
There are different types of stimming that can be seen in autistic individuals. There is olfactory or taste stimming, tactile stimming, visual stimming, auditory stimming, and vestibular stimming (Smith, 2018). Olfactory or taste stimming behaviors include licking and smelling or sniffing people and objects. Some tactile stimming behaviors include finger tapping, and skin rubbing or scratching. Visual stimming behaviors can be object placement, such as lining up toys, repetitive blinking, and staring at objects such as ceiling fans or lights. Auditory stimming behaviors include covering and uncovering ears, repetitive speech, humming, grunting, and shrieking. And lastly, vestibular stimming involves one’s sense of movement and balance and can include rocking, pacing, or jumping.
Although stimming has been proven to be beneficial for individuals on the spectrum, stimming “treatments” have been encouraged and approved by many, especially parents, because they regard stimming as noticeable and stigmatizing. Stimming is more acceptable for younger kids but becomes less acceptable as they become adults. There is a divide between the neurotypical community and the neurodivergent community when it comes to understanding what is beneficial to those on the spectrum. Most people see stimming as childish, odd, and aggressive, and in order to prevent marginalization, autistic people often decide to hide their stims altogether or to do them in private. Treatments encourage “quiet hands” to suppress hand flapping, while activists promote “loud hands,” in support for encouraging nonharmful stims. Activists are trying to communicate that unharmful stimming can be beneficial to autistic individuals and should not be suppressed by “treatments” or interventions because it is seen as abnormal and childish.
Stimming is caused by many factors, and they are often interrelated. The inability to control their environment and mind often leads individuals on the spectrum to stim. The combination of an overwhelming environment, such as loud noises and sudden movements coupled with intense emotions, can be disorienting and oppressive. The valence of emotions can also trigger someone’s stimming, meaning intense happiness and excitement or extreme stress and anxiety can lead to the need to modulate themselves. In the case of valence emotions, stimming is a way for autistic people to release any intense emotion, whether it be positive or negative.
Additionally, stimming can also be a communicative tool that can show how an individual is feeling without actually saying a word. Depending on how well you know that individual, you can tell how they are feeling based on the kind of stim they are displaying. There are certain stims a person can show when they are happy or excited that differ from the stims that they express when they are anxious or stressed. So, by learning what those behaviors are, someone can know how they are feeling, and depending on the emotion, they can help alter the environment or factor that is causing that particular behavior.
Education and acceptance of stimming are needed to better close the divide between the neurodivergent and neurotypical communities. Stimming should not be seen as something peculiar or stigmatizing but should be seen as an adaptive mechanism for autistic people to cope and follow the pace of their environment. If something is not harming others and is only helping an individual, why should those behaviors be suppressed or hidden? Although stimming activists have made some progress with educating people of its purpose and benefits, more people, especially parents, have to be aware that unharmful stimming is nothing to be wary about, and in the end, it can only be beneficial and advantageous.
Kapp, S. K., Steward, R., Crane, L., Elliott, D., Elphick, C., Pellicano, E., & Russell, G. (2019). ‘People should be allowed to do what they like’: Autistic adults’ views and experiences of stimming. Autism : the international journal of research and practice, 23(7), 1782–1792. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361319829628
Smith, L. (2018, February 19). Stimming: Understanding this symptom of autism. Medical News Today. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319714#treatment-options-and-tips-for-caregivers