Stimming: Self-Soothing Behaviors

What is Stimming?

Have you seen a child flapping their hands? Elbows bent, hands up by their face, hands flapping like bird wings?

Some children may do it when they’re worried or anxious. Other children may show this behavior when they’re excited or happy, as in this video.

(You can see other examples of excited hand flapping / stimming at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QD9OPDUVejo and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_gZqQy_Ae4.)

Hand-flapping is an example of a self-soothing behavior. There are several other self-soothing behaviors children use, like rocking, thumb sucking, jumping, spinning, humming, hair twirling, or lining objects up in a row. These repetitive behaviors might be called “stimming” for self-stimulating, or stereotypy.

This is common in toddlers, then tends to become less common as they get older – fading in the preschool years. But some children continue to do it. Parents of older children who still do this often view it as a problem that needs to be solved, and may say things like “how do I stop my child from flapping their hands?”

Let’s first figure out why children stim, and then think about how to respond to it.

Why do people stim?

When you’re nervous, do you ever bounce your knee? Or bite your lip? Or wring your hands? When you’re impatient, do you tap your foot or drum your fingernails? Have you ever been so excited that you want to bounce up and down? Or clap your hands and squeal? Or throw your hands up in a victory celebration? When there is a sudden loud noise, do you cover your ears? When you’re waiting on hold on the phone, do you click your pen up and down, pace, or rock your chair? Do you mumble to yourself or swear repeatedly to communicate your frustrations? These are things we all do. These things could be called “stimming” because our brains/bodies are seeking to regulate stimulation, whether that’s to distract us when we’re bored or soothe us when we’re anxious or release tension or express big emotions. Having stimulation that we chose can help us to regulate our brains/senses.

Neurotypical folks can typically stop themselves from doing these behaviors if they feel like it’s not appropriate where they are, or if they’re disturbing someone or if they don’t want other people to notice them.

Some people have a hard time stopping themselves from stimming or are very uncomfortable if forced to stop. This can be a sign of autism, though not everyone who stims is autistic. (If your child is over 3 years old, and frequently flaps their hands or uses other stims and also shows other possible signs of autism, it’s a good idea to learn more about autism, learn more about deciding whether to have your child assessed for autism, and how to access developmental testing.)

If you want to better understand why someone is flapping or stimming, here are ideas to explore:

  • Determine what triggers the behavior. Is it too much stimulation? stress? excitement overload? Or boredom? (too little stimulation)
  • If you change the environment (for example, making it quieter and more peaceful), does that change the frequency of the stimming?
  • If you give them an acceptable alternative for boring circumstances where they have to sit still (like having a fidget spinner in class or a coloring book at church), does that reduce the stimming?
  • Does it help if you “notice” and validate the underlying feelings: “It looks like you’re really excited about this.” Or if you notice what’s triggering their behavior: “it is really loud here – that’s bothering you isn’t it?”
  • If it only happens in certain situations or certain moods, it can be easier to understand and to influence. If they do it all the time in all circumstances, it may have become a habit, and making changes to the environment or activities may not change it.
  • Are they seeking attention? An autistic child who is stimming typically does not care whether others notice. Some neurotypical children may do behaviors like stimming because they notice that they get a lot of attention when they do. If you have realized they only do these things when they have an audience, stop paying attention to the performance and see if the behavior fades.
  • Can you re-direct their attention to some other activity? If so, then do. Or is it really hard for them to stop? This perseveration may be more common for autistic children.

Do we need to stop a child from stimming?

Before deciding that stimming needs to be “fixed”, it’s important to ask autistic people about autistic experiences to get their perspective. In her post “the Obsessive Joy of Autism“, Julia Bascom, current Executive Director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) says

“One of the things about autism is that a lot of things… are harder. But some things? Some things are so much easier. Sometimes being autistic means that you get to be incredibly happy. And then you get to flap… I  flap a lot when I think about Glee or when I finish a sudoku puzzle… I spin. I rock. I laugh. I am happy. Being autistic, to me, means a lot of different things, but one of the best things is that I can be so happyso enraptured about things no one else understands and so wrapped up in my own joy that, not only does it not matter that no one else shares it, but it can become contagious.”

Julia Bascom

And another perspective from an individual with an autism spectrum disorder:

No one should try to stop hand flapping because it is part of who we are. Would you like it if everyone were trying to make you stop smiling? … Or putting your sunglasses on top of your head? Or crossing your legs when you sat? That is what people are doing to us when they try to make us stop flapping our hands: they are trying to force us to stop moving in ways that are natural, healthy, and comfortable to us.

Good Autism School

I know many autistic adults who may “mask” at work and in public – acting in ways that are considered neurotypical. This helps them to fit in better but can be exhausting. When they are amongst friends and family, they may stim when it soothes them or gives them joy.

My son is 11 – his current stims are making random sudden noises, and the need to say the same thing multiple times in a row. (Typically either something he’s really excited about or something he’s saying to talk himself out of being worried about something.) Our family knows that saying things multiple times is soothing to him, so we roll with it at home. But we do let him know that it can annoy other people or lead peers to shun him, and we asked him if he wanted our help figuring out other ways to manage this – like writing things down on post-its he brings home from school. Random noises are OK at home, but we asked him if he wanted ideas for alternate things he can do elsewhere when he has that energy that won’t disturb others, like blowing out a puff of air instead of making a noise, or flicking his fingers.

If the stimming isn’t causing problems for the child, you don’t need to “fix” it.

When is stimming a problem to work on?

  • When it interrupts other activities (e.g. their hands are so busy flapping, they can’t use them to do other things),
  • When it is blocking learning (e.g. they are frequently being asked to leave the classroom because they’re overly disruptive),
  • When it affects your child’s ability to make friends,
  • If your child is accidentally harming themselves or others, or
  • If the child themself wants to reduce the behavior or wants to learn to mask when they choose to

What are ways we might reduce stimming?

First, never punish stimming. This would be like punishing a child for crying. Or for laughing. Don’t criticize or shame a child for stimming.

Here are some supportive methods to try that might reduce stimming if it has become a problem:

  • Increase physical activity: If the child gets more exercise (especially heavy work) or spends more time outside, does that reduce stimming behavior?
  • Change environments: Can you spend more time in environments that the child finds calming and less time in places / circumstances that overload them?
  • Place and Time: Can you set times and places where stimming is welcomed? That might help reduce their need to do it in situations where it is more problematic.
  • Replacement behaviors: Are there other things they can do with their body that meet the same needs? Maybe hand clapping, hand pressing (like in a prayer position), playing with play-dough, or using a fidget toy. If they are stimming, instead of saying “don’t flap”, re-direct them to the replacement behavior: “get your calming bottle.” When you see them proactively choosing a replacement behavior instead of stimming, praise that.
  • Overcorrection: Sometimes flapping hands really hard and fast for a just a short while, or jumping hard and fast for a little while, will help get it out of their system quicker.
  • Release Tension: One of the reasons for stimming is to release tension – are there other effective releases – laughter, crying over sad movies, journaling or drawing?
  • Build emotional literacy: Teach and practice emotional regulation skills (Check out the Zones of Regulation tools.)
  • Raise awareness and make plans: When the child is stimming, you could briefly comment on it to help them be aware. If you notice common triggers, you may help your child notice those. Then you can work together on an action plan. For example, if noise and crowds overwhelm them, you might plan a trip to the zoo for a Tuesday afternoon rather than Saturday morning. Prepare and inform: when you’re approaching an event that might cause your child stress, let them know and talk about ways they might manage that.
  • Professional support: A therapist to address anxiety can help. An occupational therapist trained in sensory integration can help with regulation. (You may also see information about ABA therapy. That can help, but be very cautious about this option, as much of ABA therapy is framed around the idea of “fixing” autism by training children to behave “normally” and withholding rewards when they show autistic behaviors. I recommend you not choose places that define stimming as a problem, instead choose one that offers alternatives to stimming that a child could choose to use instead.)
  • Parent support: Talking to other parents of kids with challenging behaviors can be a huge help, as you learn you’re not alone in your worries. It can also help parents to talk with a parent educator, parent coach, or therapist to discuss their own concerns.

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