Autism stimming behaviors are often misunderstood. Among people who do not know someone with autism, stimming can be seen as “weird” or “unusual.”
But for those with autism, stimming is done for a variety of reasons, from calming down the nervous system to communicating needs.
Like many other behaviors of autism, stimming is a complicated behavior and not all individuals display the same types of stims.
Every stimming behavior differs from person to person as to the causes and severity of the stimming.
Within the category of stimming, there are five subcategories of stimming behaviors that affect different aspects of the senses.
This definitive guide will examine each of those subcategories of autism stimming behaviors in depth!
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What Is Stimming?
Stimming is a symptom of autism that involves repetitive body movements or repetitive objects moving.
This is a self-stimulatory behavior that activates one or more of the senses.
While there are seven senses, not every child or adult will do every stimming behavior to activate each sense.
This type of behavior in autism is often linked to personal preference and an individual’s personality.
One person with autism may prefer to rock repeatedly while sitting, another may flail their hands.
Causes of Autism Stimming Behaviors
There’s no one specific reason why those with autism engage in autism stimming behaviors.
Every person has a unique personality, including those with autism, and their personality determines their preferences for stimming.
Causes of stimming behaviors:
- overly stimulated by his/her environment.
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5 Types of Stimming Behaviors
1. Stimming Visually
Visual stimming is any stimming behavior involving the visual sense.
Many children or adults with autism will become preoccupied or focused on repetitive moving objects.
Some may prefer bright flashing lights. It all depends on the individual’s preference.
Common visual stimming behaviors include:
- Hand flapping
- Staring at ceiling fans
- Eye tracking, or looking out of the corners of the eyes,
- Flicking lights on and off
- Lining up objects
- Moving fingers in front of the eyes.
- Repetitive and/or hard blinking.
- Spinning objects
2. Stimming of the Vocals
Vocal stimming is any repetitive stimming involving sound and listening.
This type of stimming is more recognizable because a certain “stim” will be repeated over and over.
Such auditory and vocal stimming behaviors can include:
- Repeating the same word or sentence
- Clicking noises
- Snapping fingers
- Tapping fingers
- Covering and uncovering ears
- Repeated yells or screams (not out of distress or pain)
- Whispering words
It’s important to note that auditory stimming and verbal stimming are terms that are often used interchangeably.
While auditory sounds consist of behaviors that only involve hearing (like tapping or snapping fingers), vocal stimming involves sounds made with the mouth or breath.
3. Stimming by Touch
Tactile stimming involves anything stim related to touch and feeling.
Those with autism will typically seek out things to stimulate the senses, like textured objects to run their hands over and feel.
One of the best ways to encourage a healthy outlet for tactile play is through sensory play and a DIY sensory tactile wall!
Some examples of tactile stimming include:
- skin rubbing
- Need deep pressure (like weighted products or heavy blankets)?
- Touching textured objects (fluffy, smooth, coarse, slimy)
- Finger tapping
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4. Oral stimming
Oral stimming is a self-stimulation behavior involving both smell and taste.
This is one of the autistic stimming behaviors that can cause concern due to small objects and choking risk.
Children with oral stimming will often lick, smell, or eat objects.
If your child has a tendency to choke, it’s important to learn what your child likes to put in your mouth and make sure they are supervised vigilantly to prevent possible choke.
While this type of stimming behavior may be alarming, many individuals with autism need to meet their oral stimming needs with sensory chew necklaces.
This will replace unhealthy oral stimming habits.
Oral stimming behaviors include:
- Skin licking
- Smelling objects (toys, fingers, and more)
- Chewing on non-edible items (pencils, clothing, toys)
- Thumb sucking
5. Vestibular and Proprioceptive Stimming
Proprioception is the ability to understand where the body is in space. also known as “body awareness.”
This allows us to sense what our limbs are doing without looking at them.
This sense regulates posture, movement, and how much pressure we apply to objects during tasks like writing with a pencil or cracking an egg.
Vestibular input refers to the body’s sense of balance, movement, change in position, and direction of the head.
The receptors for this sense are located in the inner ear and are activated by fluid in the ear canal.
This ear canal fluid moves and relays information signals to the central nervous system about the body’s position in relation to space.
Both proprioceptive and vestibular stimming are often put into the same category because the two tend to work together for the benefit of the body’s movement.
Individuals seeking this type of input will engage in some of the following proprioceptive and vestibular stimming activities.
Common proprioceptive and vestibular stimming:
- Rocking back and forth or side-to-side,
- Jerky movements
- Spinning or twirling
- Head inversion (hanging your head upside down)
- Stomping while walking
- Bumping into objects or people
Problematic Autism Stimming Behaviors
While most autism stimming behaviors are not harmful, there are a few stimming behaviors that do need to be redirected because they can cause harm to an individual.
Problematic behaviors are typically seen in children who are trying to communicate a need such as anger or anxiety.
A child who is having trouble transitioning from one activity to another may become frustrated and begin to scratch their arm repetitively.
Another child with autism may hang their head on the floor when a toy is taken from them.
It’s important with these types of stimming behaviors to address them immediately and understand what is causing the distressing behavior.
When a child displays harmful stimming behaviors, the behavior needs to be stopped immediately, the child needs to be redirected, and the behavior needs to be replaced with a healthy and calming activity like deep pressure therapy with a weighted blanket.
Some problematic stimming behaviors that need to be stopped and redirected include:
- Head banging
- Repetitive scratching
- Hair pulling
- Skin picking
- Nail biting
- slapping oneself, others, or things
- punching oneself, others, or things
- Kicking objects or people
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Autism stimming behaviors are highly misunderstood. From the outside looking in, many people may find stimming behaviors odd or even annoying. But every child and adult with autism serves a purpose.
Stimming can be used to lower anxiety, subside anger, communicate a need or want, or they may just be doing a stimming behavior because it brings them joy (like spinning in circles).
Whatever the reason may be, it’s important to be aware of each individual’s needs and particular stims they are more likely to engage in.
I highly recommend it to all parents of children with autism to keep a quick guide list of all your child’s stimming behaviors.
This can be given to therapists, schools, babysitters, and relatives.
Not only will it help others understand your child’s unique personality, but it will also alert them to any alarming and potentially harmful behaviors before they happen.
This will prevent anyone from being caught off guard by stimming behavior or being perplexed about what a “stim” is and how it relates to autism.