Stimming: What it is and why Autistic people do it

Stimming is a way of being inside our Autistic bodies. Because our neurology — our brains and nerves throughout our body — is running an Autistic operating system, we get so much pleasure and comfort from using our bodies and things in the world around us to stim.

Editor’s note: the featured image was supplied by the Autistic artist and Illustrator at Naessly’s Art Space.

What is Stimming?

Stimming may be the most recognizable Autistic trait. The word comes from the phrase “self-stimulating behaviors,” but stims are so much more than behaviors. Stims are communication, celebration, self-regulation.

Stimming is any of a wide range of actions that we repeat again and again, often rhythmically. Sometimes we use things outside of ourselves to stim with, but just as often we stim with nothing but our own bodies. Stimming is a way of using our senses to calm ourselves, entertain ourselves, and enjoy being alive and in the world.

Stimming can use any of the senses:

Some visual stims:

  • Flicking your fingers in front of your eyes to break up the light
  • Looking through a kaleidoscope or teleidoscope, marveling at the beautiful patterns
  • Putting your face close to the fan to see the whole world flicker between the blades

Some auditory stims:

  • Playing the same song over and over (or just your favorite 30 seconds of the song!)
  • Humming or other vocalizing like moaning, grunting, meowing
  • Hitting the same word over and over on your AAC device

Some olfactory stims:

  • Rubbing your face on every page of your book to smell the paper and ink
  • Rubbing your nose against your hand to smell the warm scent of your own skin
  • Ripping leaves apart to smell the green freshness inside

Some tactile stims:

  • Rubbing your hands up and down the trunk of a tree to feel the bark
  • Chewing on everything to see how things feel inside your mouth
  • Rubbing your fingertips together to feel the fingerprint ridges rasping across each other

Some vestibular stims:

  • Spinning around and around standing, in an office chair, on a swing with chains tangled
  • Hanging upside-down, doing tricky yoga poses, or doing somersaults
  • Shifting weight from one foot to the other or balancing on one foot

Some proprioceptive stims:

  • Bouncing on a trampoline
  • Rocking your body back and forth
  • Tipping your chair back and forth

We like to fidget with fidget toys, pour things out to see the patterns they make, dig our fingers into sand, spin the wheels on our toy cars, spin forks, spin coins, spin dinner plates. We like to put our fingers into the soft sweetness of that perfect cake you just baked, that cake that is just singing to us. It’s singing a song of moist goodness, and it wants to feel our fingers just as much as we want to see what our fingers feel like when we poke them past that smooth, new-fallen snow icing layer and into the cake underneath.

There are many more ways to stim than just these. Almost anything in the environment and anything our bodies can do can become a stim. The entire world is a joyful place with grass to pluck, fabric to rub our faces on or chew on, rolls of toilet paper to unwind, cat fur to ruffle, dice to click together in our hands, and water to spit in a perfect arch of sparkling sunlight.

I could write a list of stims that stretched from here to the door and still I would have barely scratched the surface. There are as many stims as there are Autistic people stimming. And there are millions of Autistic people in the world– so there are hundreds of millions of different ways to stim!

Why Do We Stim?

The number one reason we stim is simply because it feels really good. As Julia Bascom writes[1], “I pity anyone who cannot feel the way that flapping your hands just so amplifies everything you feel and thrusts it up into the air.” 

We also stim to calm ourselves down when we’re feeling too anxious, too scared, too happy, too hungry, too cold, too hot, too much pain, too much sadness. Our nervous systems can be really loud compared to people who aren’t autistic, so we can get overwhelmed by things outside ourselves — like lots of people talking at once, bright sunlight glaring off the metal of cars, strong smells like raw meat or laundry soap. We can also get overwhelmed by things inside ourselves — like emotions, body feelings like hunger or pain, even thoughts.

If that weren’t enough, many of us also have senses that are very quiet compared to people who aren’t autistic so we can get just as overwhelmed by a lack of feelings, and we need to stomp or make loud noises or do things that look painful to others, like pull our hair or even slap ourselves. Adding the sensory input helps to calm us down when we’re feeling unsettled by not getting enough sensory information.

Managing Stims? Celebrating Stims!

A lot of people talk about “managing” stims as if they were bad behavior. Stims are never bad behavior. People aren’t stimming to bother you or embarrass you. The only time you should even think about “re-directing” someone who is stimming or trying to replace their stim with another less disruptive stim is:

1. When the person who is stimming is causing genuine harm to themselves or others. This is not common, but there are people who stim by biting other people, by banging their head into something hard, and so on. If a stim is actively harming someone, it’s time to talk about “solutions.”

But stims that don’t harm anyone don’t need to be “solved” because they aren’t a problem. Feeling embarrassed by someone’s stim is YOUR problem, not theirs. That means you are the one who needs to find a solution for your response.

2. When the stim is actively interfering with something else the person wants to do. To use myself for an example, I have some stims that would disrupt a class or a meeting at work. I really want to go to school and work a job so I found stims I could replace those stims with. I can chew gum and few people even notice my jaw working. I’ve had professors who let me knit in class and that was a much less disruptive way of “fidgeting” to stay calm and quiet enough to listen to the lecture than some of the other things I might have done.

Replacing a stim for this reason means the person who is stimming has to want to replace that stim and they have to be allowed to lead the exploration for another stim that will fill their needs. Helping someone fit in someplace they don’t even want to be is not a reason to try to change their stims for them.

3. When the stim is very likely to get the person hurt. For example, stims that alarm police officers and make them want to shoot a person are dangerous stims to have. If the person can have a conversation about the risks of their stim, that is the best route to take.

If they cannot have a conversation about it, you still must explain to them why you are trying to help them change a stim they don’t want to change. Even if you believe the person cannot understand what you are saying, you must tell them anyway.

We understand more than people give us credit for. Non-speaking autistic people may not answer you or have a conversation with you, but they are listening and they hear you.

Why Is It So Important to Let a Person Keep Their Stims?

You might as well ask why it is so important to let a person keep breathing. Stims are the way our bodies interact with the world. We need our stims, and we will suffer without them.

Would you use a pressure cooker without a safety valve for steam to escape? Would you try to teach someone not to smile when they are happy? Would you teach someone not to cry when they are sad? Would you try to train someone not to rub their stomach when it hurts?

Maybe you would do all those things, but I think you can see why it wouldn’t be wise to stop natural responses in people. Stimming is our natural response. If you try to make our bodies stop stimming, you are doing violence against our bodies and our spirits.

Think very carefully before you interfere with stimming. There must be a very good reason to interfere with our bodies that way. “Because it looks weird” is not a good reason, nor is “because people will bully them for looking weird.” If these are your concerns, you and the Autist in your life are better served by working to shift the culture so that people aren’t bullied over harmless differences.

Stimming is a natural and healthy expression. Learn to see what we see in our stims. Look for the pleasure and comfort in our stims. Stimming is just one more way to be human and it’s beautiful that being human has so many facets, like a carefully crafted gem.

Our stimming shines and sparkles just as much as anyone else’s ways of being. Without autistic people and our rich culture of stimming, humanity would be diminished. A diamond needs all its facets in order to express its beauty and humanity needs all our wonderful diversity.

Stimming is valuable and serves many purposes. Let our stims flow freely and cherish us for who we are: whole and beautifully kinetic.


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14 Responses

  1. Thank you so much, Maxfield for this article! It made me smile as I read it! And I think it will be a key component in educating society.

  2. I think I may be austic because whenever I get happy I moan and I listen to the same song or listen something similar

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