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What You Need to Know About Autism and Stimming

By Fraser Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Carrie Sporer, Fraser Occupational Therapist Nicole Latzig and Pam Dewey • stimming, autism and stimming, what is stimming, self regulation and autism, regulating and autism, autism spectrum disorder, ASD, autism, autistic, hand flapping and autism • April 14, 2022

You might have seen someone doing repeated noises or movements in public, like flapping their hands or making a certain sound repeatedly. If you know someone with autism, you might recognize this behavior as stimming. Stimming is self-regulating behavior that involves repeated movements or noises.

Why do people with autism stim?

Fraser Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Carrie Sporer says for people with autism, stimming is an expression of emotion. Generally, they’re really happy or feeling dysregulated. Sporer says it depends on the person, the environment and the context. Her son has autism, and when he’s excited about something, like talking about geography, he might hold his hands by his face to regulate his inner excitement. When waiting in line, he might engage in hand flapping because he’s trying to control his pent-up energy from having to stand and wait.

We all have self-regulating behaviors

You may not realize that everyone has little ways they regulate themselves. You may tap your feet, play with jewelry when you feel nervous, anxious or bored.  Or maybe you clap or tap your feet along to your favorite song.

“We all do things to regulate, but neurotypical people have been culturally conditioned to make these less obvious,” says Sporer. “Kids on the spectrum don’t always know how to do that.”

Is stimming harmful?

Most types of stimming behavior are completely harmless and are beneficial to people on the spectrum. Stimming helps them regulate their bodies and feelings.

However, some actions, like biting, can be harmful to the person or those around them. Loud sounds can also be disruptive in a school classroom. Sporer says you can often redirect a child’s behavior or change it to something else. When her son is waiting in line, she usually talks to him to distract him. She might also suggest that he squeezes his arm instead of hand flapping, but that is mostly so he doesn’t get questions about why he’s flapping his hands from other children. Sporer says this is because he’s still learning how to answer these kinds of questions.

Fraser Occupational Therapist Nicole Latzig points out that it’s not fair to always expect people with autism to change their behavior to make other people more comfortable. Neurotypical people should educate themselves and learn to accept other people’s differences.

If your child makes loud stimming sounds, Sporer suggests you try putting on headphones and listening to music or a podcast. If your child is okay on their own, you could also go into another room while they self-regulate.

“You should think about whether the behavior harms them or anyone else. And if it’s not, well, maybe it’s okay to let it go,” Latzig says.

What should you do if you notice someone stimming in public?

In a word, nothing. Just let them be. As long as the individual isn’t hurting themselves or anyone else, there is no need to intervene. It’s normal to feel surprised by it, but try not to stare. Give them space. If you’re with your child, Sporer says, you can explain what’s going on. Tell your child that some people use their bodies to express how they feel on the inside. 

If you’re a teacher with a student who stims, and it distracts other kids, try educating the other kids. Some might be more tolerant after they understand the behavior.

Stimming can change over time

Stimming behavior can change or stop over time. Some kids may chew on their collars or click their jaws. Sporer says these behaviors can shift and morph into other behaviors that serve them better as they get older. 

Some people might need therapy

Some kids with autism may benefit from occupational therapy to address their sensory needs and increase their regulation strategies.

“We need to recognize and accept that people process sensory information in different ways,” Latzig says. “But for some people, occupational therapy can help provide alternative ways to regulate their bodies and develop helpful skills.”