Understanding Stimming: Repetitive Behaviors with a Purpose
One key symptom of autism spectrum disorders is repetitive behaviors, such as repetitive actions like self-stimulation behavior, or stimming. These behaviors can involve one part of the body, the entire body or an object. While they may seem distractive or disruptive, and while it may not be obvious to others, stimming often serves a purpose for the individual.
Stimming is most commonly seen in children with autism or intellectual disability, but it also occurs in typically developing children and can continue into adulthood. Examples include flapping hands or flicking or snapping fingers, rocking the body, rubbing a particular object, pacing, twirling, turning a light on and off repeatedly, or repeating words or phrases.
Some stimming behaviors may not be especially noticeable, but others can be disruptive or socially inappropriate, or in some instances can cause self-harm, such as head banging or excessive scratching at one’s skin. Stimming behaviors often begin by age 3 and frequently occur when a child is engrossed in an activity or is excited, stressed or bored. An estimated 44% of people with autism report some type of stimming action.
Stimming can also refer to repetitive actions that are common among people without autism, such as jiggling a foot, biting fingernails, twirling hair or drumming fingers.
Serving a Purpose
Stimming actions are thought to serve a variety of purposes, though it is often not clear to others the reason for a particular action. They may serve to help reduce anxiety and calm the individual, to stimulate the senses, to cope with sensory overload, to express frustration, or to relieve physical discomfort.
When an individual is unable to express or explain the purpose of the stimming, a behavior specialist or therapist with autism experience can help family members and caregivers understand the reasons for the behavior.
In a study published in the journal Autism last year, Steven K. Kapp, Ph.D., and colleagues interviewed and conducted focus groups with 32 autistic adults to understand their perspectives and experiences with stimming, including the purpose and value of it and the other peoples’ reactions.
“Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements are characterized as core features in the diagnosis of autism, yet many autistic adults (and the neurodiversity movement) have reclaimed them as ‘stimming’” Kapp and colleagues wrote. “Supported by a growing body of scientific research, autistic adults argue that these behaviors may serve as useful coping mechanisms.”
The autistic adults described stimming as primarily a self-regulatory mechanism—as an important adaptive mechanism that helps them to soothe or communicate intense emotions or thoughts. They objected to treatment aimed to eliminate the behaviors. The study also found stimming behaviors were frequently not socially accepted, though Kapp and colleagues note they could become so through increased understanding.
While it may not be possible or appropriate to stop stimming behaviors, things like fidget spinners, stress balls and fidget toys can help create safer, more acceptable stimming behaviors. Writing in Spectrum News, Sarah Deweerdt suggests some strategies for managing or limiting behaviors that others may see as odd, such as delaying engaging in the behaviors until they are alone or in a non-judgmental environment. Alternatively, she suggests, “it may simply be that it is society, and not autistic people, who must change.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Signs and Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Kapp, SK, et al. ‘People should be allowed to do what they like’: Autistic adults’ views and experiences of stimming. Autism, 2019 Oct; 23(7): 1782–1792.
- Ravizz, S.M., et al. Restricted and repetitive behaviors in autism spectrum disorders: the relationship of attention and motor deficits. Dev Psychopathol. 2013 Aug;25(3):773-84. doi: 10.1017/S0954579413000163.
- Peter, Z., et al. Motor Stereotypies: A Pathophysiological Review. Front Neurosci. 2017; 11: 171.
- Deweerdt, S. Repetitive behaviors and ‘stimming’ in autism, explained, Spectrum News, January 31, 2020.