literature

Stimming

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My feet slap the rug again and again as I bounce. Jump, jump, jump. My hands wave up and down in loose fists. Jump, jump, jump. My left arm starts swinging in big circles, around, around, around. My breathing comes heavy and rhythmic. I slow down, pacing counterclockwise. My fingers tap against my thumbs: pointer fingers, middle fingers, ring fingers, little fingers. Little fingers, ring fingers, middle fingers, pointer fingers.
What is this? Just a typical 5-minute writing break.

Stimming is short for self-stimulatory behavior, or behavior designed to stimulate one of your senses. When you rub your forehead, tap your feet, or pace in circles, that's called stimming. On average, autistic people stim more than neurotypical people.

Stimming 1 by MissLunaHost

Why Do People Stim?



Reasons for stimming vary based on the circumstances. Here are some reasons why people might stim.
  • Satisfying the need for stimulation (ever pick at grass or threads on your clothes when you're bored?)
  • Self-soothing (like rubbing one's forehead)
  • Emotional regulation and self-control (like flapping hands to keep calm and stave off a meltdown)
  • Preventing sensory overload (by providing rhythmic sensory input and focusing on it)
  • Who the heck knows? (I have no clue why I pace all the time when I'm working on a big idea. I just do.)

It's important to note that while everyone stims in some way or another, stimming is more important to autistic people in general. While sometimes stimming is optional or fun, other time's it's important or even necessary in order to feel good and pay attention. Usually I need one or two forms of stimulation (deep pressure, familiar music, an exercise ball to bounce on) in order to focus on something.

Stimming is an essential part of the way autistic people experience the world.

How Does Stimming Feel?



The short answer is "it depends on the stim." To help you visualize, I'll describe some of my own experiences.
  • Casually instinctive—fidgeting with a pencil, twirling hair, rocking—you don't even realize you're doing it.
  • Focusing help—rocking, pacing, saying numbers out loud while doing math in one's head
  • Irrepressible urge
  • Communication—repeating a TV quote that's relevant to the situation, for instance
  • Expressing emotion—flapping hands when excited, rocking when anxious, etc.

Stimming usually feels good, sharpening the mind and aiding emotion and focus. It feels good, like scratching an itch or hugging a warm person when you're cold. Other times it can be less pleasant, like spinning around until you're dizzy or flapping your hands until your wrists hurt.

In fact, I'm bouncing on an exercise ball as I type this, bouncing and flapping my arms as I reread my work.

Ways to Stim



Check out the list and consider what your autistic character might do.

Consider patterns. For example, Autistic Audrey might flap her hands when she's happy, rock while thinking, spin things or tap fingers when bored, hug herself when stressed/overwhelmed, and sing sometimes just for the fun of it.
  • Spinning
  • Flapping hands
  • Playing with a fidget toy (slinky, koosh ball, tangle, etc.)
  • Ripping paper
  • Reaching out to touch unusual textures
  • Rocking
  • Tapping feet
  • Drumming fingers/tapping pencils
  • Tapping on surfaces or collarbone
  • Applying deep pressure to one's body by hugging oneself
  • Wrapping up tightly in blankets
  • Wearing tight clothing
  • Placing heavy things on one's body
  • Stretching/contorting the hands, limbs, or neck
  • Clenching fists/pressing fingernails into hands
  • Shaking limbs
  • Echolalia (can be a stim or communication)
  • Humming/singing
  • Pacing
  • Running around and jumping
  • Bouncing/swaying
  • Swinging
  • Putting on socks and sliding on wooden floors (as opposed to walking like a normal person. So much fun!)
  • Chewing gum
  • Curling one's toes
  • Listening to the same song on repeat
  • Flapping clothing or blankets to feel the air
There are many more ways to stim! This is just the beginning. Feel free to give your character stims that aren't mentioned here.

Stim Toys


Stim toys, also known as fidget toys, are objects made for fidgeting. They can increase concentration and self-control. To see some of the variety, you can visit the Fun and Function website, or Stimtastic (which supports the autistic community).

It is impossible to list everything that could be considered a stim toy. Here are some of the ones I use:
  • Beanbags (from finger-sized to lap-sized)
  • "Sea urchin" toys
  • Stress balls
  • Beaded bracelets (I like medium-sized, smooth round beads, with tiny beads as spacers in between)
  • Exercise balls as chairs
  • Swivel chairs
  • Lollipops and gum
  • Tangles
Anything can be used as a stim toy. Maybe Autistic Audrey likes to rub against a textured wall, fidget with a keychain, or repetitively run her hands through her girlfriend's cornrows. (A favorite person makes a very loving stim toy.)

Consider picking out a few favorite stim toys for your character.

Stimming 2 by MissLunaHost

Harmful Stims


Self-injurious stims usually happen for one of two reasons:
  1. Severe distress. Autistic Audrey is having a meltdown, everything feels awful, and in her panic she howls and pulls at her hair.
  2. Bad habits. Audrey bites her nails when she is bored/understimulated.
These stims identify a need for sensory stimulation. Thus, it's possible to meet these needs in a way that doesn't cause damage.
  • Scratching—to prevent damage, only scratch areas covered in cloth, such as a beanie on the head or sweatpants on the legs
  • Biting nails—putting gum/chewy jewelry/lollipops in the mouth, touching rough textures with the hand
  • Picking or pulling hair or skin—best replaced by picking/pulling at something else, like a koosh ball
  • Biting oneself—biting a chewy bracelet/necklace, chewing gum, or sucking on a lollipop
  • Sitting on one's feet (knee pain... so much knee pain)—squishing a pillow between body and edge of table for deep pressure, weighted lap pad; I'm really struggling with this bad habit
  • Hitting one's head—can be replaced by rapidly shaking their head, applying deep pressure, or hitting their head against a couch cushion or the back of a rocking chair (which will move, preventing serious damage)

Redirecting stims isn't easy. Sometimes it's very difficult. You fail a lot. It can be especially hard when you don't even realize that you've started doing it

Self-Injurious Behavior (SIB) often comes as a result of severe frustration or understimulation. Others can help by being respectful, not pushing too hard, avoiding abuse, and honoring all attempts at communication. An autistic person can minimize their own SIB by learning to understand their own triggers and limits, and by leaving as soon as they begin to feel overwhelmed.

Reducing your own self injury


Your autistic character doesn't like hurting themselves. It's not fun when it happens, and the aftermath isn't exactly comfortable either.

Here are some strategies your character may use or learn to use:
  • Take a break when stress is building up. Toughing out out makes it worse. (I have learned this from experience.)
  • Stop trying so hard to pass as non-autistic. (More on passing later.)
  • Redirect with a non-harmful stim that fulfills the same need.
  • Focus on harm reduction. For example, placing a cushion in between their legs and their hands when they hit their legs.
  • Pack comforting objects, such as stim toys they can use to redirect self-injury, when they leave the house.
  • Pay closer attention to what triggers the behavior, and when they start doing it, so they can redirect right away.

Unhelpful responses from others


It can be unsettling or scary to see someone hurting themselves. Not everyone knows how to deal with this. Here are some unhelpful ways people might react:
  • Telling them they can't do it. (They are doing it right now. So "you can't bite yourself" is clearly a lie.)
  • Punishing the person for self injury.
  • Yelling at them, or otherwise further stressing the autistic person. This will make it worse.
The more stressful the situation gets, the more likely the autistic person will keep self-injuring in an attempt to cope.

Positive responses from others


"When he wants to bang his head, now, he grabs my hands and I squeeze at his ears until he can breathe again. He puts his hands on my head and does the same for me." Julia Bascom
Stopping a harmful stim can be difficult for an autistic person to do all on their own. Sometimes, it helps to have another person to assist in redirecting or self-care.
  • Offering a barrier (e.g. holding out a cushion to someone who is head-banging)
  • Reminding children why this stim is harmful, such as "you're hurting your head."
  • Helping with an alternative stim, such as offering a deep pressure massage when someone is hitting, or offering a piece of chewy jewelry and a fidget toy to someone who is biting their nails.
Young children don't always realize the consequences of self-injury. Thus, it's important that parents say no (so the kids learn that it's bad) and help redirect to a non-harmful stim. Older children, teens, and adults usually know that self-injury is bad; they're just so overwhelmed they don't know how else to cope.

Stimming 3 by MissLunaHost

Hiding Stims



It is sometimes possible to suppress stimming.

But it can feel a lot like trying to put a lid on a pot of boiling water. Maybe, to an outsider, it looks calm for now. But one way or another, it's got to come out.

Why does it happen?


Perhaps you think it's cute and quirky when Autistic Audrey flaps her hands in delight. But that doesn't mean that everyone else agrees with you.
"Hand-flapping, rocking, and so forth are dramatic, and they work really well for some autistic people, but the very fact that they are so dramatic probably makes a lot of us suppress them lest we get in trouble … so it’s worthwhile to be aware of other stims that people might use." Packbat
Autistic people, just like non-autistics, have some degree of caring about what other people think. Autistic kids want to make their parents proud. All of us want to be thought of as good, to be liked, to be seen as fully human.

So, when other people disapprove of our stimming, we might decide to hide it.

The problem? Stimming is important for our functioning. We often have to do it in some form or another. Suppressing our basic instincts isn't exactly easy, either, so sitting like a statue is likely to leave someone tense and focused on sitting still (rather than paying attention to anything around them, like someone talking or a book to read).

And spending your life hiding who you are... well, it doesn't make you truly feel less alone.

Abusive therapy


Disturbing content. Feel free to skip this section. No, seriously, I mean it.

Some compliance-based therapies seek to force an autistic person (often a child) to look as "normal" as possible.

These therapies often involve physically forcing an autistic person to stop moving. For example, "Quiet Hands" involves slamming someone's hands down and holding them there for a few seconds, until the person automatically becomes still when told "Quiet Hands." This can be done to children as young as preschool-age (3 or 4).

People who have undergone this treatment may end up very fearful, experiencing panic attacks or other signs of PTSD.

If you want to learn more about how this works, read this poem and this in-depth article. I don't want to write too much about the details, because I get too upset.

Stimming 4 by MissLunaHost

Responses to Stimming



Depending on different characters' acceptance of others and education about autism, they may respond differently to your character's stimming. Here are some potential responses.

Parents of young children tend to respond poorly to stimming, perhaps because they don't yet know that autism is not a sentence of lifelong despair.

Bad Responses (Meaning Well)


Autistic Audrey has two friends, Bob and Carol. Maybe they don't quite understand why she's different, and they don't accept it. Here are some less-than-fantastic responses.

Bob: Don't do that, Audrey! People will think you're different.
Audrey: ...but I am different?
Carol: Audrey, don't put your pen in your mouth! It's got germs all over it. Give me that.
Audrey: but... that's mine...
Bob: Aren't you going to grow out of this?
Audrey: What, autism?
Carol: Let's find a way for your to look less autistic.
Audrey: Um...
Bob and Carol don't mean to be rude to Audrey, but that's what they're doing when they dismiss her stimming. Audrey will end up feeling alienated, and not accepted for who she is.

Bad Responses (Not Meaning Well)


Let's imagine that Audrey meets Dave. Dave isn't a fun guy. He's kind of a jerk. And he doesn't get why Audrey rocks or flaps her hands.

And Audrey? Well, let's say that the snark is strong with this one, and she can hold her own.
Dave: What's your problem?
Audrey: The fact that apparently I can't eat in peace.
Dave: (stares)
Audrey: (stares back)
Dave: What are you, r*tarded?
Audrey: I prefer the term autistic.
Dave: Why are you doing that? Act normal!
Audrey: Last I checked, people were allowed to be themselves.

Good Responses


Now let's imagine that Bob and Carol are kind and understanding people, who know how to show it. Here are some ways they could respond to Audrey.

They can act like nothing is out of the ordinary.
Carol: Let's divide up the slides. Who wants to work on what part?
Audrey: (rocking and staring at the ceiling)
Bob: I'll take the intro.
Carol: I'd like to discuss the methods of the study. Audrey, is there a part you want to do?
Audrey: (still rocking and staring at ceiling) Yes, the discussion. I have some ideas for it already.
Carol: Awesome. Dave didn't show up, so he'll do the results.

They can respond to Audrey's emotions.
Audrey: (spinning, flicking her fingers and giggling)
Bob: I take it your date went well?
Audrey: YES
Audrey: (covering her ears, swaying from side to side, and emitting a very high-pitched whine)
Carol: Dave, stop banging pots and pans together! You're hurting Audrey!
Dave: Freedom of speech! You can't infringe my rights!
Carol: Um, let's go outside, Audrey

They can help her find alternative stims if she's doing something harmful.
Carol: You're chewing on your pen again. You told me last week you were trying to quit that. Want some gum instead?
Audrey: (howling and hitting the top of her head)
Bob: Audrey, I'm worried about you hitting yourself! My couch is basically indestructible; why don't you hit it instead?
When people respond this way to Audrey, she feels like she can be herself around them. She isn't judged, or being treated like a baby, just because she looks and acts different. Instead she has conversations with them as an equal.

Constructive responses can show that a character is understanding, kind, and knowledgeable. They're more likely to come from a person who (a) knows the autistic person, (b) is autistic themselves, or (c) knows another autistic person. But anyone is capable of being kind to an autistic person.

Consider how your different characters might respond to the autistic person, and how that reflects on them and their relationship with the autistic person.

Comments71
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Cutiesaurs's avatar
I usually stem when I’m excited or think
OctoTitans4Ever's avatar
My favorite good stims: Spinning, flapping hands, playing with a fidget toy, touching textures, rocking, stretching, clenching fists, shaking limbs, running around and jumping, Bouncing/swaying, Swinging, Putting on socks and sliding on wooden floors, Listening to the same song on repeat, Flapping clothing or blankets, singing and humming.

My favorite bad stims: Biting myself, sitting on my feet, hitting my head.
hfechik98's avatar
I do it to express happiness or excitement. I get offended if somebody dares call it “inappropriate”.
MissLunaRose's avatar
I'm glad you feel comfortable expressing yourself and your emotions! There's nothing wrong with happy stimming, or harmless stimming in general.
SpiderFingers15's avatar
I have autism, and I mainly just stim whenever I'm nervous, stressed out, lonely, depressed or just bored
My stims include peeling on stuff, such as paint, tape and my nails, playing with and pulling my hair, humming, talking to myself. I even own a fidget spinner
Kim-cat3120's avatar
Wow, amazing that I find this, since I've been spending a good chunk of the day doing research on autism (thinking about giving a character of mine aspergers, in addition of doing more research for myself, since I've been diagnosed with it). This is a great article! Really has a ton of what I've been looking for.
I've noticed a few of these in myself. I tend to tear paper/anything on hand, figet with toys, tap fingers/feet, doodle, and wrap my hands in my jacket strings (or any other strings nearby, for that matter : P). I've also noticed picking at scabs and hitting my head, unfortunately...but luckily I'm falling out of that habit. ^^
Once again, great read!
Dreamy-Galaxies85's avatar
Dude
I have Aspergers
and I stim by sometimes when I listen to music I rock I don't know why I just do
and I like playing with slime and stuff like that
plus I have a dark blue blanket I like to sleep with
I can't sleep without it
I love it
one side is soft and calming I sleep with that sides
I even wrap it around myself when I'm drawing
oh and one time in class I was chawing on a you know like the pens with a rubber thing at the end
I chewed on that and one girl( who was one of my bullies and in the grade above me ) said to the teacher I was chewing on that like a 3 year old
also I have something to ask
is it bad to stim in public?
TheIkranRider77's avatar
Stimming. I completely understand it. From many autistics, like myself, I seem to have these...urges. Whether it'd be hand flapping, fidgeting, stretching, or sometimes roleplaying. I just get these...things, and they could sometimes ease stress and tension, if only for a while. But I just hate getting caught while these things happen. They seem to be involuntary, especially when I'm like irritated, anxious, giddy and excited, or just stressed out, or disgusted, or curious. I'm just so sick that whenever this happens, chances are I might be a deer in the headlights. And I feel that there may be a lot of people who cannot understand.
ardnaexela's avatar
this is interesting.
I had never heard of the term stimming. But when I read your article I recognised I've been doing that for pretty much my whole life.
I'm often talking to myself. Actually talking out loud when no one is close and kinda mouthing what I think when someone is in hearing distance.
I'm also tapping my collarbone, cracking knuckles and of course constantly fidgeting if none of the above are appropriate.
Luckily I have not often been in situations whereI go as far as self harm.
But I remember few situations when I would dig my fingernails into my arms as strong aas I can in order to numb the mental pain with actual pain.
Luckily I only got my arms to slightly bleed and I was able to keep myself from seriously hurting myself.
TheIkranRider77's avatar
Huh, in a way, I kind of do the same thing. Like hand flapping, though I should be aware with solid surfaces, and nail-biting. I'm not sure if it's a CP thing, but my head bobs involuntarily, and I had this my whole life. Sometimes I jiggle my leg or rub my hands; I just can't sit still like a statue, it's like impossible to me. Like you said, I sometimes talk to myself to relieve stress if/when no one's around or mouth things. Or stare into space to recollect my thoughts. Never thought there'd be a word for it. It's not a complete relief, but it's kind of a way to scratch a mental itch or minimize stress. Unfortunately I've been caught several times and feel embarrassed about this. I wish more people would understand this, and find a different way to help people cope when they're overly excited or irritated.
Nayanagi's avatar
I really enjoy reading these posts, because they not only give me ideas for my autistic characters, (e.g Claire Underhill) allow me to talk about autism with actually autistic people, and help me understand autistic people, but help me learn more about myself and the things that I do, which I thought were just weird quirks, but are actually symptoms of autism.

Some of my stims are fidgeting with things, (my hoodie string, hoodie zipper, bracelet, hair ties that I wear around my wrist, etc.)
twirling my hair, flapping my hands, rocking back and forth, and occasionally bouncing up and down.

Since I’m somewhat flat-footed, rocking back and forth while standing up hurts after a little bit, so I rock back and forth when I’m sitting down instead.
MissLunaRose's avatar
I'm so glad these are useful to you! I have a bunch of half-written ones sitting in my stash, and I probably should try to post some more eventually.

Sounds like fun stims! I'm a big fidgeter too.
Nayanagi's avatar
You’ll post more? Great! I like reading your posts :) Today I was stimming a lot more than usual, which weirded people out (I was really excited because I went on a date with my girlfriend today to Barnes and Noble)
My safe stims are flapping arms and rocking back in forth, my harmful stims are banging my head against my knee and biting my index fingers.
CFood's avatar
I was on the autism wikia page for stimming cause this is the first I've ever heard that word as opposed to like a tic but anyways, I went looking for your quiet hands picture to visit the source artist and saw you were on here so I wanted to mark it a favourite but I can't find it.  Man..
animubinch's avatar
This is such a good read! I'm reading up most of your articles, they're very well-worded and I'm a little jealous.

As for myself... Usually, I stim by flapping my hands when I'm excited, cracking my fingers, clicking my tongue on my teeth, tapping my fingers on things in a rhytmic way, humming and talking to myself, running pencils on paper (I love the sound it does!), and visual stimming like watching those "satisfying videos". Playing with my cats is also a good stim for me, their fur is so soft and good to touch! I do so many things, it's hard to keep track of them...
MissLunaRose's avatar
Thank you! :heart: My secret is very simple: practice and study. I used to not be that great at writing. So you can become an excellent writer if you just keep working on it!

That's a lot of great stims! I'm very jealous that you get to have soft cats to play with.
animubinch's avatar
I'm trying my best, I hope I succeed in writing!


I've four very soft cats to play with! uwu Currently stimming w one of them, its tail.
minergirl778's avatar
I think Bob is a Couch Scientist, he loves making couches, and can even make special ones with retractable cupholders, color changing cushions, heated seats, and he even made a couch with speakers on the sides so you can listen to music!! He keeps his latest creations in his house, Gives the fancy looking ones to his friends, and sells custom couches on etsy. Audrey is his best friend, they love to hang out together and play video games, and he even made a special couch just for him and Audrey! It's a two seater couch with a pop-up table in the middle. Each of their sides has their favorite color, Audrey's being orange and Bob's being blue. There's a gum dispenser on the middle pop-up table that's always stocked with their favorite flavors (just in case either of them get frustrated while playing games and start chewing on the controller) He even made the couch with a super strong and super soft material that he's constantly reinforcing to make it stronger and stronger. That's how he knows the couch is indestructable!
....I think I got a little bit carried away, but anyways,
My favorite kinds of stim are kneading putty or moldable material in my hands, bouncing my leg, and singing to myself! I also chew on my nails sometimes, but I'm trying to quit it so I can paint them eventually!
Wonderland-Rebel's avatar
Thanks for this, it gave me food for thought.

Must ask, the harmful therapy article, you drew the art didn't you?
MissLunaRose's avatar
Yes, I illustrate a lot of autism articles on wikiHow. 
StoryMaker91's avatar
I, was surprised by how familiar some of these were. I'm not autistic as far as I know but I definitely play with my hands if I'm anxious, bounce one foot if I have to sit for any length of time, and do the whole run and jump around the house thing if I'm thinking, especially about stories. That last one especially drives various members of my family crazy. I suppose I don't need to do it, I can stop myself, and sometimes I can tone it down to pacing, but it's really hard sometimes. Do you have any advice on, I don't know, how to coexist?
Shaula-Alnair's avatar
Oddly enough, this is me too. I don't know why, but I also tend to pace/run/bounce off the walls when I'm thinking, along with a few other things off this list... Cool to find out it has a name, and if I ever have an office, it will be populated with yoga balls and desk toys for so many reasons now.

I was lucky that my home was big enough that I rarely frustrated my family there, and they got used to it (though it does confuse them), but when I moved off to university, it was hard to find places that didn't result in annoyed building-mates. Outside worked well for me, day and night, though it took getting used to. Outside also came with the bonus of more exercise (Which is also a good excuse if you need one). The bathroom, of all things, worked okay when outside was too cold, wet or unsafe, because no one slept underneath it. My roommates knew they could boot me out if they wanted to use it. Bathrooms usually work okay in hotels too since building bathrooms on top of other bathrooms is cheaper. If you do find a space where running won't bother people, but it 'doesn't feel right' or you still feel cramped, see if you can rearrange the furniture to fit what you're seeking (I prefer pacing paths with room for me to get to full speed, but I don't know if you're the same)

As for replacements, other forms of physical activity have worked somewhat for me. I have much less urge to run when I'm already physically tired out from my day. Mentally tired without being physically tired for me tends to result in more pacing, with less resulting from it. >_< Not fun...

I have a ton of smaller things I do when I have to think in place (rubbing, scratching, chewing, drinking, fiddling with jewelry, etc.), though not sure if they'd count as stimming because while I'm not sitting still, it's never one thing continuously. I'm just always fidgeting slightly if I'm thinking, though that's never gotten much notice next to the pacing.

Anyways, hope this helps, and I'm always happy to find someone else who bounces off walls! And if people ever call it strange, tell them electrons do it when they're stuck inside too. ;)
MissLunaRose's avatar
Stimming is not exclusively an autism thing. I know that people with ADHD do it, and I've heard about it being a thing in anxiety disorders, although I'm not sure. There could also be reasons I haven't heard about. And some people are naturally more fidgety than others.

I suppose that the running/bouncing thing could be done in an area where people are not trying to focus. For example, if you have enough floor space in your bedroom, you could run in circles and bounce there. Or you could do it outdoors if the weather is nice.

Sometimes, sensory input can be "substituted" with other types of sensory input. For example, maybe if you play your favorite music on your headphones, you'll be less inclined to jump and more inclined to pace instead. Deep pressure sometimes is a good replacement/augmenting-thing for body- and movement-related stimming.

Also, keep in mind that you may end up meeting them halfway. This means that you find ways to keep your stims more nondisruptive... and that they learn to live with you and your fidgety nature. Basic redirection and self-awareness is good manners when people are focusing, but that doesn't mean you should have to completely squash your natural movements.
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