Stimming

Happy face emoji with flapping hands

Self-stimulatory behavior, also known as stimming and self-stimulation, is the repetition of physical movements, sounds, or words, or the repetitive movement of objects

 Stimming – Wikipedia

Autistic adults highlighted the importance of stimming as an adaptive mechanism that helps them to soothe or communicate intense emotions or thoughts and thus objected to treatment that aims to eliminate the behaviour.

‘People should be allowed to do what they like’: Autistic adults’ views and experiences of stimming – Steven K Kapp, Robyn Steward, Laura Crane, Daisy Elliott, Chris Elphick, Elizabeth Pellicano, Ginny Russell, 2019

We have five external senses:

  1. Taste
  2. Smell
  3. Touch
  4. Sight
  5. Hearing

And three internal senses:

  1. Proprioception
  2. Vestibular
  3. Interoception

We engage those senses with stimming for a few reasons:

  1. Self-regulation
  2. Sensory seeking
  3. Expression

while stimming I am able to unravel the everyday ordinary barrage of sensory and social information that becomes overwhelming. 

The Predictability, Pattern and Routine of Stimming | Judy Endow

Most of us stim because it calms us and helps alleviate our high levels of anxiety.

Siena Castellon

We have five external senses and three internal senses. All must be processed at the same time and therefore add to the ‘sensory load’.

Understanding the sensing and perceptual world of autistic people is central to understanding autism.

Autism is viewed as a sensory processing difference. Information from all of the senses can become overwhelming and can take more time to process. This can cause meltdown or shutdown.

“It’s Not Rocket Science” – NDTi

The interconnectedness between sensory input, emotions, energy level, ongoing task and how you manage everything you have to do alongside coping with sometimes overwhelming sensory input is an experience that many autistic people are familiar with. Understanding just how much the sensory world can impact how anxious you feel, how well you can communicate, how able to do a food shop or even just enter a space is an important piece of understanding to build up. Without this understanding, from the perspective of autistic people, many may not understand how all-consuming the sensory environment can be for some and for others it is a way of being able to interact that releases anxiety and tension. Interacting with the sensory world through sensory seeking behaviours is strongly associated with stimming (self-stimulatory behaviour that helps self-regulation) which is often a really positive (as long as no one is getting hurt) way of expression that can encompass happiness, anxiety, distress and so much more.

Autistic sensory experiences, in our own words — Sarah O’Brien
Autistic Stims & Stimming Explained

Stimming is a necessary part of sensory regulation. Stimming helps keep me below meltdown threshold. “Stimming is a natural behavior that can improve emotional regulation and prevent meltdowns in stressful situations.” “Let them stim! Some parents want help extinguishing their child’s self-stimulatory behaviors, whether it’s hand-flapping, toe-walking, or any number of other “stimmy” things autistic kids do. Most of this concern comes from a fear of social stigma. Self-stimulatory behaviors, however, are soothing, relaxing, and even joy-inducing. They help kids cope during times of stress or uncertainty. You can help your kids by encouraging parents to understand what these behaviors are and how they help.

We’re Autistic. Here’s what we’d like you to know.
Ask an Autistic #1 – What is Stimming?

I will never understand how people can justify the use of “quiet hands”. If you are unaware of what this phrase means, or of the implications for autistic people, you need to read Quiet Hands by Julia Bascom.

When a parent, sibling, educator, therapist, medical professional, etc justifies the use of quiet hands, it baffles me. Do they understand what stimming is? Do they realize that my hands are the key to helping me see the world? Or do they just see my movements as separate from me, as a source of embarrassment for them? I tend to think it’s the latter, that it’s because stimming draws unwanted attention that people want to quiet my hands in the first place. They don’t understand the point of stimming, or I think (hope) they wouldn’t try and prevent it.

So this is what happens when you “quiet hands” us. It’s the equivalent to duct taping an NT person’s mouth shut or preventing a nonspeaking D/deaf person from signing. You are taking away our natural language. You make interacting with the world that much harder.

On Stimming and why “quiet hands”ing an Autistic person is wrong

Autistic adults highlighted the importance of stimming as an adaptive mechanism that helps them to soothe or communicate intense emotions or thoughts and thus objected to treatment that aims to eliminate the behaviour.

Furthermore, more recent theories have suggested that stimming may provide familiar and reliable self-generated feedback in response to difficulties with unpredictable, overwhelming and novel circumstances (e.g. Lawson, Rees, & Friston, 2014; Pellicano & Burr, 2012). As such, stimming may provide not only relief from excessive sensory stimulation, but also emotional excitation such as anxiety (Leekam, Prior, & Uljarevic, 2011). Consistent with these suggestions, autistic adults report that stimming provides a soothing rhythm that helps them cope with distorted or overstimulating perception and resultant distress (Davidson, 2010) and can help manage uncertainty and anxiety (e.g. Joyce, Honey, Leekam, Barrett, & Rodgers, 2017).

Autistic people have become increasingly mobilised and vocal in defence of stimming. Autism rights or neurodiversity activists believe that stims may serve as coping mechanisms, thus opposing attempts to eliminate non-injurious forms of stimming (e.g. Orsini & Smith, 2010). They decry practices such as ‘quiet hands’ (which teaches the suppression of hand flapping), instead using ‘loud hands’ as a metaphor both for using such non-verbal behaviour to communicate and for cultural resistance more broadly (Bascom, 2012). In addition, autistic scholar-activists denounce attempts to reduce their bodily autonomy (Nolan & McBride, 2015; Richter, 2017) and declarations of their stimming as unacceptable or as necessarily involuntary (Yergeau, 2016).

‘People should be allowed to do what they like’: Autistic adults’ views and experiences of stimming – Steven K Kapp, Robyn Steward, Laura Crane, Daisy Elliott, Chris Elphick, Elizabeth Pellicano, Ginny Russell, 2019

My son stims. He performs repetitive motions in order to generate sensory inputs that he experiences as fun, aesthetically pleasing, soothing, exciting, or otherwise necessary. The word comes from the clinical term, “self-stimulatory behavior,” but there’s no need to be that clinical about it. His stimming is beautiful. To get him to stop stimming would require intensive coercion that, even if successful, would likely result in irreparable psychological harm.

What Applied Behavioral Analysis Gets Wrong About Stimming and Children – Pacific Standard

Calming, Soothing, Focusing, Joy-Inducing

“Stimming is a way that we can help ourselves feel calm, soothed, or focused, but it can also be a huge source of joy and beauty.”

What Applied Behavioral Analysis Gets Wrong About Stimming and Children – Pacific Standard

The first part is in my “native language,” and then the second part provides a translation, or at least an explanation.

But my language is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret. It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment. Reacting physically to all parts of my surroundings.

In My Language

Many people with autism are stressed individuals who find the world a confusing place (Vermeulen, 2013). So how does someone with autism achieve a sense of flow? McDonnell & Milton (2014) have argued that many repetitive activities may achieve a flow state. One obvious area where flow can be achieved is when engaging in special interests. Special interests allow people to become absorbed in an area that gives them specialist knowledge and a sense of achievement. In addition, certain repetitive tasks can help people achieve a flow like state of mind. These tasks can become absorbing and are an important part of people’s lives. The next time you see an individual with autism engaging in a repetitive task (like stacking Lego or playing a computer game), remember that these are not in themselves negative activities, they may well be reducing stress.

If you want to improve your supports to people with autism from a stress perspective, a useful tool is to identify flow states for that person and try to develop a flow plan. Remember, the next time you see a person repeating seemingly meaningless behaviours, do not assume that this is always unpleasant for them – it might be a flow state, and beneficial for reducing stress.

What is ‘flow’?

Here are some stimmy things we enjoy, most of them made by Stimpunks. Mix them together however you like.

💃 Stim Dancing and Bodily Survival Knowledge

I'm dancing on my own (dancing on my own)
I make the moves up as I go (moves up as I go)
And that's what they don't know, mmm-mmm
That's what they don't know, mmm-mmm

But I keep cruising
Can't stop, won't stop grooving
It's like I got this music
In my mind
Saying, "It's gonna be alright."

Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

--Shake It Off

Let’s get unapologetically, autistically wild.

The Bobby Lees performing live on stage with the lead singer captured mid head swing. Image Credit: Kyle Duce

This is Pure stim music

3 seconds in, I lost my shit and straight into head banging

A Neurodivergent Crip
Monkey Mind
It's just my monkey mind
Monkey Mind
It's just my

I take him out, and then I sit him down
I look him in the eye, and say no more
monkeying around
Now you look-y here, you gonna leave me
alone
Cause there's no room here for a little
monkey in my home

Monkey Mind
It's just my monkey mind
Monkey Mind
It's just my

That monkey mind, he likes to eat himself alive
Think he's done, and then he takes another bite
Now see, I gotta learn to be kind
To my monkey mind, cause he'll be with me till I die

Monkey Mind
It's just my monkey mind
Monkey Mind
It's just my

Monkey Mind by The Bobby Lees

Let’s bolster against stress and pass survival knowledge down.

…flamenco is in itself a ballistic activity with its own built-in reward system that can then bolster the brain against traumatic stress.

…not only can traumatic knowledge be passed down, so can bodily survival knowledge-knowledge about how to survive the debilitating effects and symptoms of PTSD.

If your “threat to life” responses are being re-associated on a regular basis with flamenco responses, slowly, like polishing stone, flamenco has the potential to be an asset for people who are working through PTSD.

Because We Have To: Flamenco as Survival Strategy against Detrimental Effects of Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder

sensory pleasure (which could be viewed as almost the opposite feeling to anxiety) can be one of the richest, most delightful experiences known to the autistic population – and should be encouraged at any appropriate opportunity.

Avoiding Anxiety in Autistic Children: A Guide for Autistic Wellbeing 
Thrive
Crawling up the spine
Feel each vertebrae 
Trailing up the stems
Blooming when I say 
Thrive

Thrive by Scarlet Monk

There are so many unexpected movements that live inside my body. So many different shapes and motions that never get to come out during day to day life. There’s something so liberating about being able to explore all of these things I didn’t even know lived inside me.

torktorktork

Let’s bliss.

Stimming is beautiful.

Playlist: Stimming with Aurora

“We call ourselves Warriors and Weirdos.”

I’m a very emotional person. I have to use everything I’ve got to sing those songs.

Aurora Aksnes

✈️ Fractal Foam for Airports

Listen to this:

And watch this:

Fractal Foam by Stimpunk AJ

🐦 Ambient Bird Calls

Bobwhite Quail

Channel City Camera Club from Santa Barbara, US, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Brown Thrasher

Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Canyon Wren

Amado Demesa from DF, México, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Carolina Wren

Dan Pancamo, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Eastern Meadowlark

gary_leavens, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Great Horned Owl

Bubo virginianus – Grand-duc d’Amérique ou Grand-duc de Virginie.

Loon

Cephas, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Wood Thrush

Photo by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Western Meadowlark

USFWS Mountain-Prairie, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ambient Bird Calls by Stimpunk AJ

🌊 Ocean Waves

The swells and textures of nature follow patterns that resonate with the human body through its ability to hear sound. Ocean Waves is a wonderful way to easily immerse yourself in a lush, and relaxing natural sounding sonic environment, anytime! The swells are specially timed to encourage the body to breathe more slowly and more deeply. The sound spectrum is full and is matched to the powerful release of deep sound energy of the Earth’s beautiful shores. Have access to a comforting sound which has the added benefit of helping to block outside annoying sounds. Enjoy a sonic tribute to one of nature’s most wonderful experiences, the sound of the ocean’s waves, to feel more refreshed and invigorated.

Ocean Waves

Play Ocean Waves

Ocean Waves by Stimpunk AJ
Water Simulated Fractal Foam Fractal Brownian by Stimpunk AJ

🕳🌎 Perspective Curling

🫠 Molten Lattice

Lattice B-6b by Stimpunk AJ

💆‍♀️🐈 Breath Nurby Percussive Purr Massage

This pairs well with a neckband speaker or subwoofer.

Breath Nurby Louder Mixed by Stimpunk AJ

🔔 Bellflower: Flaws to the Front, Bounce and Strut

🫁 My Ty She

I like what that song does with my breathing. I feel like part of the song, a consenting instrument both playing and being played.

Ryan

Yes! The care and beauty of the song felt like a metronome or beauty-beacon. I felt it too in my mind’s eye, a calling to open myself wider, but calling with beauty as if to say ‘it’s safe to be beautiful.’

AJ

🌌 The Universe Is Given Forth Folded and Unfolded

The artist hopes to convey this: that the universe is given forth folded and unfolded. Although explicit understanding helps, it is too cumbersome, and should only provide refinement to something already greater that exists.

That greater thing is what was given to the artist first by the practice of origami. An enlivening of the intuitive mind, experience with a universe of many dimensions, and the promise of creation revealed when one folds a flat square into the likeness of a higher dimensional thing. That inspiration reaches a young mind in a powerful way.

The artist wants the viewer to see proof of what their intuitive mind already knows is true, the universe is a multidimensional phenomenon and the ability to understand its nature already exists within us each.

The artist hopes the viewer will be inspired to seek the understanding of freedoms available to the individual inspired by the exposure to artistic expressions, and of a nature of dimensionality unimaginably greater than the object presented here.

Adriel Jeremiah Wool

👋🧷 Our Stims

Ryan

  • Picking my scalp
  • Pulling my hair
  • Pacing back and forth and in circles (when I could walk)
  • Wheelchair pacing
  • Wheelchair stim dancing
  • Music, music, music

I love scratching my head. Love, love, love. The feel from both head and hand is satisfying, comforting, and necessary. Life is more bearable with the pressure of fingernail on scalp. Life is better when I can scratch, pick, peel, and pull.

The Self-injurious Stims that I Love

Slouchy beanies with an open pattern are my go to for sensory regulation because they allow me to scratch and pick my scalp without taking the beanie off. I can go through the holes, or I can get my hand up under the hat since it’s slouchy.

Slouchy beanie with a loose weave and variable pink and green coloring sitting on a table
Slouchy beanie with a loose weave and variable pink and green coloring sitting on a table

Here are my two of my favorite stimming and coping playlists.

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Published by Ryan Boren

#ActuallyAutistic retired technologist turned wannabe-sociologist. Equity literate education, respectfully connected parenting, passion-based learning, indie ed-tech, neurodiversity, social model of disability, design for real life, inclusion, open web, open source. he/they