What Is Stimming And What Does It Mean?

For those who may not be familiar with it, the sight of a child or adult flapping their hands or rocking back and forth could be confusing. However, what most are seeing is a very common self-soothing behavior, especially for people with autism (via Healthline). What may be even more surprising to learn is that, in some form, every person does it as well.

Self-stimulating behavior, also known as stimming, is any repetitive behavior that some autistic people both adults and children, engage in as a means of coping with stress or anxiety, gaining sensory input, or dealing with sensory overloads, such as loud noises or situations that may be causing distress, according to the National Autistic Society. Although this behavior is much more pronounced in people with autism, the Child Mind Institute points out that everyone stims in one way or another. Drumming one's fingers, biting or chewing fingernails, or tapping a pencil while thinking are all self-stimulating behaviors. The distinction between ordinary stimming and stimming that could be categorized as autistic is when it interferes with daily life, disrupts learning, or makes social situations harder than usual.

Not all stimming is harmful

Parents who have a child who is prone to stimming may want to know how to stop the behavior, but the Child Mind Institute says that this is the wrong approach to take. If one stimming behavior, such as hand flapping, is stopped, another will pop up to replace it, one that could potentially be more obvious and disruptive. Instead, one should first seek to understand why the behavior is occurring and look for constructive ways to reduce it or integrate it into daily life, like allowing stimming as a reward following a period of work or interaction.

It can be easy to look at stimming as a negative trait, but WebMD notes that there can be benefits to the behavior. For example, it can be useful in grounding a person and helping manage emotions, particularly when they become overwhelming. In fact, being able to auto-control can be beneficial for one's mental health and the understanding of emotions. However, the National Autistic Society says that harmful stimming behaviors, such as head-banging or scratching should be dealt with. If you feel that your child or loved one is engaging in stimming behaviors that are injurious or harmful socially or to themselves, you should consult with a specialist to find ways to modify their actions and redirect them more positively.