What Is Stimming? ADHD And The Possible Behavioral Issues

By Nadia Khan|Updated June 13, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Lauren Guilbeault, LMHC

If you've heard of the term "stimming," it was likely in conjunction with ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which formerly included conditions like Asperger's syndrome and some of the disorder's earliest and most easily definable symptoms. Although it has garnered attention primarily as a symptom of ASD, stimming is a very common human behavior and can be observed in people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities, including those without disabilities.

What Is Stimming?

The term "stimming" is an abbreviation for "self-stimulatory behavior." While it may sound complicated, it is an umbrella term used to describe any movements, patterns of behavior, or actions used to stimulate the senses. The most commonly seen forms of stimming, both in neurotypical people and in people with delays, include humming, swaying side to side, biting nails, biting the inside of the cheek, tapping fingers or toes, and rubbing the skin. Using these as a guide, you've undoubtedly seen someone in your life stimming or have found yourself stimming in a moment of boredom or discomfort. Online therapy can help you understand your behaviors better.

Stimming In Developmental Delays

While stimming is a natural response that is in no way unique to individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities or even a brain injury, it can function as a source of comfort and control for children with developmental delays or developmental disorders. Because most children with developmental disabilities also experience some amount of sensory overload, stimming can be used to regain control over a certain sensation or experience. This is especially common in sensory processing disorders.

Children who are overwhelmed by auditory input, for instance, might be found shrieking or shouting in response to a lot of auditory stimuli. Children overwhelmed by visual input may press against their eyelids to create stars in their eyes or move their eyes back and forth rapidly.

In the developmentally disabled, stimming is highlighted as an adaptive mechanism that helps those in the disabled community to communicate intense emotions. As a result, stimming could be more likely to be loud, distracting, or different from the common sources of self-stimulation. This is likely the reason why people typically associate stimming with delays and disabilities. Understanding the function of stimming in these individuals can provide insight into the experiences of individuals with sensory overload and their behavior and habits.

Stimming in ADHD

While developmental disabilities or intellectual impairments do not necessarily accompany ADHD, it is common to see children who have ADHD present with sensory difficulties. For that reason, ADHD stimming may be more akin to the stimming you see in a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or other developmental delays than it is to the behavior of typical peers. Children with ADHD may stim more in the form of fidgeting. This can entail a child squirming in their seat but can also include more noticeable and disruptive behaviors, including speaking over other people, humming loudly, picking at skin or hair, or pacing back and forth. All these behaviors are used to solicit some form of sensory input. They may help people with ADHD quiet down some of the sensory systems prohibiting focus or creating unpleasant sensations in the body.

Concerned About ADHD and Stimming?

The Functions of Stimming

Stimming has multiple functions, depending on the person engaging in the behavior and the environment the person is in. Self-stimulatory behavior, by nature, is designed to create a sensation in the body. However, the reasons for seeking sensation are unique to each individual and can change from day today. For some, stimming is used to exert control over a situation and redirect fear or unpleasant energy. When this is the reason for stimulatory behavior, sensory overload is usually involved. Stimming is a form of control that will often appear in a more dramatic movement, sound, or behavior, such as rocking, jumping, or crying. These can help quiet an overloaded sensory system by taking the reigns and acting as the source of the feeling.

Some people stim to relieve excess energy. Pacing, biting nails, tapping feet, and fidgeting can all be used as a means of eating up energy that has no other place to go and is commonly seen in children with ADHD. Hyperactivity is a core symptom of ADHD, so eliminating excess energy is not an anomaly within the diagnosis but is almost a matter of course.

Still, for others, stimming is engaged as a way to alleviate boredom. This is perhaps the most common reason for stimming in people who do not have a disorder or delay. Stimming for these individuals usually manifests in smaller, more socially acceptable ways, such as twirling one's hair while reading a textbook or tapping one's foot while waiting in line. These small energy expenditures engage the body in several ways and do not require effort or thought to create.

When Stimming Needs Intervention

Technically, stimming does not require intervention at all. If stimming does not interfere in daily life, it need not be tamped out, eliminated, or lessened. But therapists, parents, and educators must intervene when stimming begins to interfere with living a healthy, well-adjusted life. This is very often the case in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and is sometimes the case with children who have ADHD, which is also a developmental disorder.

Staring off into space at the expense of listening to a lecture or lesson in class is an instance in which stimming significantly interferes with a child's ability to function. Staring into space and failing to acknowledge or listen to an educator will impede a child's academic achievement. Similarly, stimming by humming or speaking over others will likely require intervention, such as applied behavioral analysis, as both of these behaviors can negatively impact a child's social behaviors and social skills.

Stimming in the Classroom

Stimming within the classroom will look different for each child, even if multiple children are affected by the same disorder. ADHD has three core symptoms, but these common symptoms are expressed differently from child to child. Some children with ADHD do not have significant sensory issues and might not stim much, apart from the occasional bout of stirring and wriggling in their seats. Children with ADHD and sensory issues are far more likely to have larger stimming behaviors, including talking over the teacher, humming, rocking, tapping hands or feet, getting out of seats to run or jump, and twirling in circles. For these children, an IEP or 504 plan is likely necessary to improve learning and encourage academic success.

Stimming at Home

Stimming at home is unlikely to need the same level of assistance as stimming in school but may still require parent support and some form of intervention, such as therapy. Some children with ADHD may have trouble sitting at the table for meals, and as a result, may develop unhealthy relationships with food and eating. Some may experience sensory issues and difficulty concentrating, which can make completing chores and abiding by parents' requests extremely problematic, leading to relationship rifts between parents and children. Still, others may experience stimming in the form of self-injury, which is problematic and necessitates intervention.

If you have inflicted injury on yourself or have thoughts about doing so, you may consider contacting National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for help. It provides a free and confidential support network for people in distress across the United States 24/7. Comprised of over 180 different local crisis centers, the group is focused on helping you be your best self. 

Stimming with ADHD

Although ADHD might seem primarily like an intellectual issue, its effects are far-reaching and impact far more than just classroom settings. Children with ADHD very often experience sensory issues, which can exacerbate existing behavioral struggles and alienate family members and peers. While stimming may initially seem problematic for children with ADHD, it can be useful for parents, educators, and therapists. The severity and prevalence of stimulatory behavior can help caregivers determine the extent of a child's sensory issues and help identify the regions of the body and brain where the sensory issues are most prominent.

For some, the thought of discouraging a child to stim is akin to forcing a child to give up a beloved toy or activity; it seems almost cruel. For others, visible stimming functions as a source of alienation and indicates an area of need, so it must be addressed and resolved. Whether your child with ADHD is experiencing sensory overload or struggling entirely with the symptoms of ADHD, stimming is likely to come into play at some point in their treatment journey. Determining whether or not stimming is a harmful or damaging aspect of ADHD will largely depend on you and your child's goals and the extent to which you are willing to seek treatment for undesirable behaviors.

Concerned About ADHD and Stimming?

Seeking Help

If stimming is an issue for you and it's starting to interfere with your life, consider speaking to a therapist. BetterHelp is a great resource for any questions you may have about ADHD and stimming. Professional mental health therapists are also available to you from the comfort and privacy of your own home (or wherever you have an internet connection). A therapist will help you better manage your stimming and arm you with the tools you need to focus on matters of importance.

For people with ASD or ADHD, different types of therapy can include social skills training and behavioral management through applied behavioral analysis. This method can help meet the needs of each individual and promote positive and productive behavior changes and replace negative, maladaptive ones.

Clinical care in the form of medication can also be useful for keeping some symptoms under control and reduce stimming. Consult with a psychiatrist or your doctor at your local clinic or general hospital to see what options are available.

Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

Vivian has been so warm and understanding through this process. I am new to therapy, but she made me feel so comfortable and never made me feel silly for anything I brought up. Having her go-to when I needed a listening ear has been more helpful than I could have ever predicted. She has taught me some new techniques that have brought me a lot of relief in my everyday life, and I am so thankful for her!"

"Jeni has such simple and direct ways of getting to the heart of the matter and such great suggestions for changing behaviors through acknowledging and understanding feelings. I found it especially helpful to write to her, and her written responses have been timely and to the point. I so appreciate being able to work with her."

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