25 Examples Of Stimming Behaviors

By Tanisha Herrin

Updated May 19, 2020

Reviewer Aaron Horn

Many people engage in some form of stimming, but it may not appear as obvious to some as others. The behavior includes engaging in movements or sounds created in a repetitive nature related to self-stimulation. The behavior is common in people with autism, except it may lead to problems if it gets out of control. Autistic individuals may engage in stimming that is different from typical stimming because the actions vary by quantity and type while being more obvious than other related behaviors. When it becomes disruptive, it may affect how one lives daily and should be addressed as soon as possible.

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The actions associated with stimming related to autism may include actions that are noticeable such as finger flicking, pacing, or flapping their hands. These actions may look odd, but they differ because they are associated with a person's behavior. Typical forms of stimming may include tapping a pencil on a desk, twisting the hair around your finger, or biting your nails. The following content takes a look at stimming behavior examples and management options.

The behaviors or actions part of stimming is known as stims. Experts say when an action is considered unacceptable or not tolerated culturally speaking, it is known as a stim. Nail biting is fairly common, but it is likely more acceptable than walking around flapping your hands. If you're sitting in a chair rocking back and forth in a mild manner for a brief period, it may be more acceptable than rocking your whole body back and forth which would be defined as a stim.

Technically, either of these actions shouldn't get negative attention, but because of the standards that society has for how people should act, one action may get more negative attention than the other. In this case, nail-biting may be overlooked since many do it often due to nerves or habit. Someone flapping their hands may get unusual looks because the action is less tolerated than nail-biting.

Some stims cause others to worry about someone's safety or well-being. They may create fright in others and have others feeling legitimately upset, especially if the actions become extreme. Some stims are problematic because of how they occur. For example, an autistic person may make loud noises with their mouth that sound threatening, hit their head repeatedly against a wall, or use their hands to hit themselves.

Here are common types of stimming to be aware of:

  • Whistling
  • Cracking knuckles or joints
  • Using fingertips like a drum
  • Twirling hair around fingers
  • Nail biting
  • Pencil tapping
  • Wiggling your foot

Autistic individuals may engage in stims for hours at a time and may include being obsessed or preoccupied with objects, words, or an aspect of a particular subject. These behaviors include the following:

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  • Pulling hair
  • Blinking repetitively
  • Rearranging or moving things
  • Rocking
  • Walking or pacing on tiptoes
  • Scratching or rubbing the skin
  • Stroking, rubbing, or licking certain objects
  • Staring at moving or rotating objects like a wheel or fan
  • Jump, bounce, or twirl repetitively
  • Flap, flick or snap their hands or fingers
  • Repeat phrases or words
  • Smell objects or people

It is important to note there are repetitive behaviors that may lead to physical harm such as:

  • Placing dangerous items in the mouth or swallowing them
  • Scratching or rubbing the skin excessively
  • Biting
  • Punching
  • Picking at sores and scabs
  • Headbanging

Differences In Stimming With Autism

Research is ongoing to understand why autistic people engage in stimming. The actions they experience are difficult to stop, and some may engage in the behavior during certain times of the day. It occurs more regularly for those with autism, but for most people, the occurrences are now and then. Most people that stim may do it because they are relieving tension, feel nervous, or bored.

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There are several reasons why people with autism stim. They may do it when they are overwhelmed, excited, anxious, happy, or a way to bring comfort to themselves. Some engage in the behavior when they are in a stressful situation or to help themselves get comfort in new surroundings. In many circumstances, an autistic individual may not be able to control their stimming like most people.

Most people that stim are aware they are doing it or they know they wouldn't do it during situations. For example, many wouldn't bite their nails at the dinner table if they were on a date. A person may have a stimming habit and not realize it because they think it is harmless. In many cases, it is, and most know when it is appropriate to do it. You may be sitting among your peers imitating a motion or sound but notice your actions are irritating others, so you stop.

An autistic person may twirl, swing back and forth, or flap their hands in an obvious way for prolonged periods. Their behavior may disrupt others, but they may not understand that due to a lack of social awareness.

People with autism that stim may not experience behaviors that cause a problem. It may become a concern if it creates disruption in daily living, interferes with learning, or leaves a person socially excluded. In rare situations, it may cause danger or be associated with a medical condition such as a seizure.

Can You Control Stimming?

If the behavior is causing problems, it may be controlled with professional guidance. There are management techniques for other forms of stimming depending on how they affect the individual. To understand if management is needed for stimming, these are questions to consider:

  • Has social seclusion or isolation resulted from stimming?
  • Is the behavior disruptive in social settings such as school?
  • Is the ability to learn affected by stimming?
  • Are family members experiencing problems because of stimming?
  • Has the behavior led to danger or destruction?

If self-harm is imminent contact your doctor or emergency personnel immediately. A doctor may want to examine and evaluate existing injuries. Trying to control it is different from trying to manage it. The goal may be to encourage one to have self-control of their actions instead of trying to control them.

Techniques To Help Manage Stimming

Managing stimming may vary from person to person even if autism isn't a related cause. There are techniques for people with autism that includes therapy, applied behavior analysis, medication, and making changes to their surroundings or environment to limit stress. Understanding what is behind the behavior is important and may give insight on which methods to consider achieving effective results. Assess the situation before the stimming occurs to note triggers. Here are other things to consider:

  • Look for ways to eliminate triggers.
  • Create a calm environment to keep stress low. Make settings quieter or smaller by reducing things that cause distractions.
  • Establish a daily routine to complete tasks.
  • Encourage self-control and behavior that is acceptable
  • It is not recommended to punish someone for stimming. Give a reason when addressing the behavior, so they are less inclined to replace it by doing another.
  • Set an example by teaching behaviors that are acceptable to replace stimming. A stress ball may be encouraged when they engage in hand flapping.
  • Seek guidance from a specialist that works with autistic individuals. They can assess your situation and provide the reasoning behind the behavior.
  • Learn about therapy options such as applied behavior analysis (ABA) behavioral therapy or work with an occupational therapist. Therapy options may help reduce or modify acts of stimming.
  • Anxiety issues related to stimming may benefit from medication designed to help reduce anxiety.

After gaining further understanding of the situation, it becomes clear what management techniques to consider. Other things to consider as part of the managing process may include knowing when to intervene, so a person doesn't get hurt, know when to say something or respond to an act of stimming, and know how to advise others such as family members of how to help their loved one when they stim. Be aware of when to seek medical attention if necessary.

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Additional Details To Know About Stimming

While the act is known to stand out in autistic persons, it is usually not a threat or danger. It may create embarrassment for loved ones when out in public during social situations, but such feelings shouldn't dictate how someone behaves or reacts to the behavior. Sometimes it is a matter of raising awareness if autism is the result of the behavior. Whether or not autism is a factor, the behavior may not be eliminated. It is important to establish acceptance of the behavior by realizing your loved one act differently than others. It may take a while to accept if you feel sensitive when others express judgment.

Occurrences of stimming may come and go, and they are known to start during childhood. Some children grow out of the behavior while others experience the behavior more often during times of stress. The behavior is manageable in many cases, but it requires patience. Social situations and life at home may improve over time when achieving self-control methods.

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