What is Stimming? Decoding stimming from an autistic perspective

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Stim toys?

Perhaps what the average person most associates with autism is stimming, as it is the most visible aspect of an autistic person. In films and media, stimming has always been depicted when trying to illustrate that someone has autism. This is something I’ve reflected on while watching movies featuring autistic characters, like Rainman, and also in TV series.

Technically, stimming is described as a repetitive movement or sound intended to provide sensory feedback. It can include hand flapping, finger movements, chewing on clothes, rocking or fidgeting with objects, twisting arms, legs, or head, or making sounds like humming, singing, or screaming. Often, one becomes completely absorbed in their own world, shutting out the surroundings. It can be an effective method to tune out disturbing elements.

So, what is stimming? Nowadays, it’s a way for me to try to organize my thoughts and clear the clutter in my mind. It happens most when I’m being creative, creating something, or when I find myself in a situation where I don’t know everything, and I’m learning new things, like trying to fix a car or woodworking, for example.

People with autism may stim to manage overstimulation or understimulation of their senses. It can be a mechanism to handle stress or anxiety, a form of self-regulation when overwhelmed by emotions. When I stim, it often leads to a quite intense discussion between my mouth and my thoughts. I once thought about recording myself when it happens, but unfortunately, it’s quite disjointed as thoughts often race faster than words. It’s not uncommon for me to apologize to colleagues, saying that I was thinking out loud. I also have moments when I bite my nails or scratch myself a lot. Unfortunately, it’s not enjoyable when you suddenly bleed a lot just because you’re worried about something.

It’s important to realize that stimming is a natural part of autistic behavior and is not necessarily something that needs to be changed or corrected. Instead, it can be a significant part of a person’s self-expression and self-regulation. My son stimms just like me. He is often in motion when he stims, both walking around the house and the yard, waving his arms, sticks, and similar items. I don’t think his stimming is because he needs to pronounce ‘R’; however, unlike me, he finds it quite challenging to learn things in school. His stimming is probably due to more factors than that. It could be his way of organizing monsters in Minecraft or processing things that have happened around him. I don’t know, and I’m not sure if I want to ask, as these could be very private thoughts that he needs to process. However, I find his stimming very draining for myself as I struggle to tune out the noise coming from his mouth.

If stimming becomes problematic, there are ways and techniques to help the person find other ways to manage over or understimulation or stress. Examples of such methods can include:

  • breathing techniques and relaxation exercises, which have helped me when I’ve had difficulty calming down and relaxing. There are plenty of mindfulness and yoga exercises that one can try.
  • A sensory diet is a plan that helps individuals with autism get the right amount of sensory stimulation throughout the day. This may involve planning specific activities or exercises that provide the sensory stimulation the person needs. Physical activity can help regulate emotions and reduce stress and anxiety. For me, physical activity gives a feeling of fatigue that helps me relax. It can be as simple as taking a walk or participating in a physical activity that one enjoys.
  • Then there are preventative strategies. This can involve creating a calm, orderly, and safe environment without strong sounds and lights. You can plan breaks or routines to help manage the day. In our family, we thought a lot about this when planning our living space. You can create a decorated home, but you have to take it in small steps and consider how to create a calm impression.
  • I often find help in listening to music, a podcast, or the radio when I get too many impressions. Sometimes, it’s my ANC headphones that are my best investment for finding peace. It’s also becoming an increasingly important part of me, as I’ve worked hard to suppress my own stimming for many years.

Of course, these techniques don’t replace stimming; it’s still a helpful self-regulation technique for people with autism. However, these techniques can be used as a complement to manage overstimulation, understimulation, and stress.

My stress balls, not so useful for me but maybe for you.

In our home, it’s often evident when life is stressful, and what’s challenging for me is that my son’s stimming is very stressful for me. I find it extremely difficult to concentrate, or for that matter, to relax when he stims. Having years of life experience, I’ve learned that stimming is not very accepted in society, so I’ve suppressed my own stimming for many years and step aside when it becomes too much. It’s something I’ve noticed that my son has started to do as well; he has no problem stimming at home, but it doesn’t happen as much in the yard as it used to; it might be someone passing by.

When my son stims “too much,” I try to talk to him to understand why he stims and try to grasp the cause of what triggers him. Sometimes it’s super challenging, but sometimes you can untie the knots, creating calm for both him and me. There are also aids that can be calming, such as a “spiky ball,” one of those dog toy balls with spikes. You can use it to “massage” someone who is wound up. If nothing else, such a strategy usually breaks the stimming for a moment so that you can get through.

chew toy, another stim gadget.

There are “stim toys” that one can acquire. My experience is that these “special” things rarely work, but if you, for example, chew on clothes, a necklace with a silicone item might be an alternative?

This is perhaps the most common thing mentioned when talking about “Stim Toys.” My son’s favorite stim toy is a foam sword he got several years ago. He, who likes to wave and express himself when he stims, likes to have something in his hand while doing it. The foam sword has become a good replacement for flower sticks, remote controls, clothes hangers, and similar items.

If you’re looking for a stim toy, you need to think about what the stimmer is doing when stimming. It’s highly individual and can also change as thought patterns develop.


One Response

  1. Hairstyles

    March 27, 2024 9:14 am

    Thank you for another great article. Where else could anybody get that type of information in such an ideal way of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I’m on the look for such information.


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