If you've heard of the term “stimming,” it was likely discussed in relation to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Stimming, or self-stimulatory behavior, such as nail-biting, humming, or rocking, can be a very common human behavior and is often observed in people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities. In most cases, stimming is not harmful and does not need to be treated, but if it begins to interfere with everyday life, it may need to be addressed through therapy. If you’ve noticed that stimming behaviors have begun to cause difficulty in your life, then working with a licensed therapist online or in person may be helpful.
What Is Stimming?
The term "stimming" is generally an abbreviation for "self-stimulatory behavior.” While it may sound complicated, this can be thought of as an umbrella term used to describe any movements, patterns of behavior, or actions used to stimulate the senses.
Stimming And Developmental Delays
While stimming can be a natural response that is not necessarily unique to individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities, it can function as a source of comfort and control for children with developmental delays or disorders. Because most children with developmental disabilities can also experience some amount of sensory overload, stimming can be used to regain control over a certain sensation or experience. This tends to be especially common with sensory processing disorders.
Children who are overwhelmed by auditory input, for instance, might shriek or shout in response to a lot of noise. Children overwhelmed by visual input may press against their eyelids to create stars in their eyes or move their eyes back and forth rapidly. This can be referred to as “trigger stimming,” when the stimming behavior reflects the channel and intensity of the sensory input that disturbs the person.
In those with developmental disabilities, stimming can be an adaptive mechanism used to communicate intense emotions. As a result, the default settings of such stimming may be loud, distracting, or different from more common types of self-stimulation. Understanding the function of stimming can provide insight into the experiences of individuals with sensory overload and their behavior and habits.
While developmental disabilities or intellectual impairments do not necessarily accompany ADHD, it can be common to see children with ADHD who also experience sensory difficulties. For that reason, ADHD stimming may be similar to the type of stimming you may see in a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other developmental delays.
Children with ADHD may also stim 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. These behaviors are typically used to solicit some form of sensory input, though they can sometimes distract other students or people in the room. At the same time, these stimming behaviors may help people with ADHD quiet down some of the sensory systems prohibiting focus or creating unpleasant sensations in the body.
The Functions Of Stimming
Medical reviewers generally confirm that stimming tends to have multiple functions, depending on the person engaging in the behavior and the environment the person is in. Self-stimulatory behavior, by nature, can create a sensation in the body. However, the factors that trigger stimming may be unique to each individual and can change from day to day.
For some, stimming may be used to exert control over a situation and redirect fear or unpleasant energy, though it may be accompanied by a perceived lack of self-awareness. When this is the reason for stimulatory behavior, sensory overload is usually involved, according to the latest evidence-based research. Stimming can be a form of control that often appears in more dramatic movements, sounds, or behaviors, such as rocking, jumping, or crying. These behaviors can quiet an overloaded sensory system.
According to peer-reviewed studies, many people with ADHD stim because it can be self-soothing. Chaos and feeling overwhelmed tend to be the most common causes of stimming, and the resulting self-stimulatory behaviors can help people with ADHD manage sensory overload.
However, 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. Hyperactivity can be a core symptom of ADHD, so eliminating excess energy can be a natural result of this symptom. By relieving excess energy, a person with ADHD can calm down and improve focus.
For others, stimming may be engaged to alleviate boredom. This is perhaps the most common reason for stimming in people who do not live with 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 can engage the body in several ways and do not usually require much effort or thought.
Types Of Stimming
Self-stimulatory behavior can come in many forms. Depending on the person and the reasons why they stim, they may focus on one type or engage in many types of stimming behavior.
Visual stimming generally refers to stimming behaviors that utilize the sense of sight. Some visual ADHD stimming examples can include staring at objects or excessively drawing or painting.
Verbal stimming typically involves using one’s voice or utilizing the hearing sense. Examples of verbal stimming behaviors may include excessive giggling, humming, making odd noises, or compulsively clearing the throat.
Tactile stimming behaviors normally focus on the sense of touch. Examples of this type of stimming can include picking the skin, rubbing fingers, teeth grinding, or biting fingernails.
Vestibular stimming behaviors usually focus on body movement and balance. Examples of this type of stimming may include spinning, rocking, and swinging.
There can be other stimming behaviors that don’t fit into the above categories as well. These can include excessive gameplay, excessively sharpening pencils, acting out a movie scene repeatedly, or writing the same words or numbers repeatedly.
When Stimming Needs Intervention
In most cases, stimming does not require intervention at all. If stimming does not interfere with daily life, it generally does not need to be lessened or eliminated. Based on a report from the American Psychiatric Association, research has found that autism and ADHD stimming often have a purpose and can be beneficial. Therefore, there may be no need to manage stimming behaviors.
Therapists, parents, and educators may need to intervene when stimming begins to interfere with living a healthy, well-adjusted life, though. This can sometimes be the case in children with autism or ADHD. In these cases, behavioral therapy is normally the main treatment protocol.
Staring off into space at the expense of listening to a lecture in class may be an instance in which stimming significantly interferes with a child's ability to function. This behavior has the potential to impede a child's academic achievement.
Stimming In The Classroom
The APA suggests that stimming within the classroom may look different for each child. ADHD typically has three core symptoms, but these common symptoms can be expressed differently from child to child. Some children with ADHD do not experience significant sensory difficulties and might not stim much, apart from the occasional bout of stirring and wriggling in their seats.
Children with ADHD and sensory challenges tend to be far more likely to display more significant 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 individualized education program (IEP) or 504 plan may be 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 it may still require parental 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. Others may experience sensory challenges and difficulty concentrating, which can make completing chores and abiding by parents' requests difficult. This could potentially lead to relationship rifts between parents and children.
Stimming With ADHD
ADHD’s effects can be far-reaching and often impact far more than just classroom settings. While stimming may initially seem problematic for children with ADHD, it can actually be useful for parents, educators, and therapists. That is, the severity and prevalence of stimulatory behavior can help caregivers determine the extent of a child's sensory difficulties and identify the regions of the body and brain where they are most prominent.
For some, the thought of discouraging a child from stimming may be akin to forcing a child to give up a beloved toy or activity; it can seem almost cruel. For others, visible stimming functions as a source of alienation and indicates an area of need, so it may need to be addressed and resolved.
Whether your child with ADHD is experiencing sensory overload or generally struggling with the symptoms of ADHD, stimming is likely to come into play at some point in their treatment journey. Determining whether stimming may be a harmful or damaging aspect of ADHD can largely depend on your and your child's goals and the extent to which you are willing to seek treatment.
Is Stimming Interfering With Your Life?
If stimming has become problematic for you and has started to interfere with your life, it may be beneficial to speak to a therapist. When mental health and/or developmental concerns are already disrupting your life, though, it can be difficult to make time for an in-person therapy session. In this case, you may find online therapy to be a more convenient alternative.
Benefits Of Online Therapy
Online therapy can be convenient and customizable form of treatment for those with busy schedules. You can attend sessions from any location with an internet connection at a time that fits into your existing routine, and you may choose between video call, phone call, and online chat options.
Effectiveness Of Online Therapy
According to a 2022 study, online interventions for ADHD can be effective in improving attention deficit and social function. Online therapy may be a helpful tool in learning to manage any stimming behaviors that have begun to interfere with your everyday life.
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