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  • Writer's pictureAlexander James

What Is Stimming And How Should It Be Managed?

The term ‘stimming’ refers to self-stimulating behaviours that usually involve making repetitive movements or sounds. These behaviours are intended to soothe difficult emotions and help an individual cope with a stressful situation. Here’s a closer look at what stimming involves and how best to manage it.


Why does stimming occur?

Stimming is most widely associated with people on the autistic spectrum, but in fact most people engage in stimming behaviours from time to time. It’s thought to be a way of coping with difficult emotions, either through distraction or by blocking out other unwanted forms of stimulation, such as loud noises or bright lights.


The most common triggers include busy crowded spaces, physical discomfort such as pinching shoes, boredom, anxiety, or overexcitement. It can help to diffuse a tense and overwhelming situation, or it can be an attempt to cope with physical pain or discomfort.


What are examples of stimming behaviours?

The most common types of stimming behaviours that may be exhibited by both neurotypical and autistic people include nail biting, pacing, hair pulling or twirling, tapping of feet or fingers, or scratching the skin. Almost everyone has used at least one of these actions when they are momentarily bored or anxious.


Neurodivergent people may also engage in autism specific stimming behaviours, including hand flapping, head banging, rocking, self-hitting, repeating words or phrases, excessive blinking, or spinning.


Should stimming be considered problem behaviour?

Most stimming is harmless and can provide a useful outlet for negative emotions. However, some stimming behaviours can cause physical harm to an individual, such as hitting, head banging, or excessive scratching or nail biting.


In some situations, stimming behaviours can be disruptive to others, or distressing to the individual. Some actions are more noticeable and draw attention because they are outside the bounds of what is considered to be socially or culturally acceptable.


For example, most people may not even register that a person sitting next to them on the bus was twirling their hair, but they would certainly notice if they were repeatedly banging their head against the window.


How can stimming be managed?

In most cases, stimming behaviours are brief coping mechanisms and stopping or limiting them would do more harm than good. If a child is stimming, making them feel ashamed of their behaviour to avoid an embarrassing situation can make symptoms such as anxiety worse.


However, if stimming is causing harm to the person or those around them, or going on for long periods and disrupting the life of them and others, it should be managed. As a last resort, medication may be prescribed, but first it’s important to try and redirect the behaviour to less harmful or disruptive patterns.


Sometimes, removing the person from the trigger is the best policy. If they are overstimulated, redirect them to a safe quiet space. If they are bored, engage in a distracting activity or alternative less harmful stim, such as squeezing a stress ball. In some cases, the person may benefit from working with a trained therapist.


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