Stimming is a term for self-stimulatory behavior. It often manifests as repetitive body movement and is common among people on the autism spectrum.

Stimming can bring enjoyment and help people cope with uncomfortable or stressful situations. They may include nail-biting, tapping, or repetitive movement of objects.

This article examines what stimming is, why it may occur, and how people may wish to manage it.

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Stimming is self-stimulatory behavior that normally involves repetitive body movements or repetitive movement of objects. People may also refer to this as stereotypy.

This type of behavior is common in autistic individuals and those with developmental disabilities or challenges. Stimming can include the use of all the senses.

Learn more about autism here.

Stimming behaviors can provide comfort or enjoyment to autistic people. Stimming actions can vary in intensity and type and can occur due to various emotions.

Autistic people of any age may stim occasionally or constantly in response to excitement, happiness, boredom, stress, fear, and anxiety. They may also stim during times when they are feeling overwhelmed.

The form and frequency of stimming will vary between people.

Auditory stimming

Auditory stimming uses the person’s sense of hearing and sound. It may include behaviors such as:

  • vocal sounds, such as humming
  • tapping on objects or ears, covering and uncovering ears, and finger-snapping
  • repetitive speech

Tactile stimming

Tactile stimming uses the person’s sense of touch. It may include behaviors such as:

  • skin-rubbing or scratching with the hands or objects
  • hand movements, such as opening and closing one’s fists
  • finger-tapping

Visual stimming

Visual stimming uses a person’s sense of sight. It may include repetitive behaviors such as:

  • staring or gazing at objects, such as ceiling fans or lights
  • repetitive blinking or turning lights on and off
  • moving fingers in front of the eyes
  • hand-flapping
  • eye tracking or peering from the corners of the eyes
  • object placement, such as lining up objects

Vestibular stimming

Vestibular stimming uses a person’s sense of movement and balance. It may include repetitive behaviors such as:

  • rocking front to back or side to side
  • spinning
  • jumping
  • pacing

Olfactory or taste stimming

Olfactory and taste stimming use a person’s sense of smell and taste. They may include repetitive behaviors such as:

  • sniffing or smelling people or objects
  • licking
  • tasting objects by placing them in the mouth

While stimming is often not a dangerous behavior, it can have adverse physical, emotional, or social effects on some individuals.

For some, stimming can include higher risk behaviors such as banging their hands, head, legs, and objects, which may be potentially physically harmful.

At times, this behavior is not stimming but a nonverbal method of communication that a person uses to make themselves understood. If a person behaves in this way, it is often beneficial to contact a doctor for advice.

Stimming can bring enjoyment and can help people cope with certain situations. It is not always behavior that requires management therapies.

However, some people may wish to reduce or replace certain stimming behaviors. This may be due to behaviors impacting a person’s day-to-day life or causing harm.

Behavior management therapy

Certain behavioral or occupational therapies may help autistic people reduce or stop stimming behaviors. Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) is a method of managing autism spectrum disorder through a system of reward-giving.

Personal behavioral support may help identify the triggers of a person’s stimming and avoid them if suitable.

For example, if large crowds tend to make a person anxious and their stimming behaviors increase, they could try keeping to less crowded environments when possible.

If interpersonal interactions cause a person’s stimming, social situation training may help them manage their behaviors if they so wish.

Speaking with a qualified healthcare professional will be helpful in working out what recommendations are most appropriate.

However, it is critical to remember that autistic spectrum disorder does not require treatment, nor do a person’s behaviors require management unless they wish so.

Medication use

In cases where stimming is causing distress or harm, doctors may recommend medications to reduce repetitive behaviors.

Medications may include:

Stimming or self-stimulatory behaviors can help people cope with stressful situations and bring enjoyment. It is a common behavior pattern in autistic people and can often be wholly positive.

These behaviors can vary between people and may include repetitive movements, humming, or moving objects.

However, if stimming behaviors affect a person’s quality of life or cause harm, they may wish to seek support or management strategies. A medical professional may recommend suitable behavioral or drug therapies where necessary.