Common Examples Of Stimming Behaviors

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Stimming, or self-stimulatory behavior, involves engaging in repetitive movements or sounds for self-stimulation, often observed in individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Autistic children may exhibit repetitive behaviors such as hand flapping, rocking back and forth, or repeating the same song. Stimming serves to manage emotions, alleviate physical discomfort, or cope with sensory overload in the context of developmental disorders.

While individuals without autism spectrum disorders may engage in self-stimulatory behavior such as nail-biting or knuckle cracking at times, an Autistic person may engage in stimming that is different in that the actions can vary by quantity and type while being more obvious and harder to control. Many Autistic children, as well as those with ADHD, also manifest stimming. The difference is that ADHD stimming helps in focusing and controlling impulses while stimming in autism aids in alleviating anxiety and managing sensory overload.

In this article, we’ll explore common examples of stimming, how it can differ for individuals with autism, and tips for managing if it becomes disruptive.

Has stimming become disruptive?

What is stimming? Examples and how it can differ in autism

Stimming refers to self-stimulating behaviors such as repetitive motion and noises.

The behaviors associated with autistic stimming, related to autism spectrum disorders, may include noticeable actions that go beyond what is considered socially acceptable, such as repeated finger flicking, rocking the body, or flapping one's hands. Some self stimulatory behaviors, like head banging or hand flapping, may garner more attention due to societal expectations for behavior and may cause concern for the person's well-being. For example, someone on the autism spectrum may make loud noises that sound threatening or hit their head repeatedly against a wall.

Examples of stimming

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

  • 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
  • Jumping, bouncing, or twirling repetitively
  • Flapping, flicking, or snapping their hands or fingers
  • Repeating phrases or words
  • Smelling objects or people

It is important to note that some repetitive behavior 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
  • Banging one’s head against things.

Differences in stimming with autism

Research is ongoing to understand why Autistic people may engage in stimming, and there can be several reasons why individuals with autism may display self-stimulatory behavior. They may do it when they are overwhelmed, excited, anxious, or happy, or they may do it as a way to bring comfort to themselves. Some may engage in the behavior when they are in a stressful situation, experiencing negative emotions, or to help themselves gain comfort in new surroundings. In many circumstances, an Autistic individual may not be able to control their stimming and may find it difficult to stop.

Individuals not on the autism spectrum who engage in self-stimulating behaviors may be able to control the behaviors and recognize that they wouldn’t do them during certain situations. On the other hand, an individual with autism may twirl, swing back and forth, or flap their hands in an obvious way for prolonged periods and find it difficult to control or stop. Their behavior may disrupt others, but they may not understand this due to challenges with interpreting social cues. For this reason, it can be difficult to reduce stimming behaviors.

Managing stimming

Autistic adults' views on stimming may vary, but many people with autism who stim do not experience behaviors that become problematic; if the behaviors aren't causing problems, they don't need to be stopped. However, a behavior may become a concern if it creates disruption in daily living, interferes with learning, or leaves an Autistic child socially excluded. In rare situations, it may cause danger or be associated with a medical condition, such as a seizure. According to The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, management of stimming may be necessary in some cases. 

Below, we'll explore how to determine if management is needed and a few tips for managing stimming if it has become disruptive.

How to determine if management is needed

If a 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 may be needed for stimming, these are a few 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?
  • Has the behavior led to danger or destruction?

If self-harm is a possibility or concern, contact your doctor or emergency personnel immediately. A doctor may want to examine and evaluate existing injuries.

Techniques to help manage stimming

Managing stimming may vary from person to person. There are techniques for people with autism, including therapy, applied behavior analysis, medication, and changes to their surroundings or environment to limit stress. Understanding what is behind the behavior may give insight into which methods to consider to achieve effective results. You might assess the situation before the stimming occurs to note things that may prompt it. Below are a few other tips to consider:

  • Create a calm environment to keep stress low. You might start by making settings quieter or more manageable by reducing things that cause distractions.
  • Establish a daily routine to complete tasks.
  • Encourage self-control and behavior that is acceptable.
  • Avoid punishing someone for stimming. You might give a reason when addressing the behavior so that the individual can understand why it may be disruptive.
  • Set an example by teaching behaviors that are acceptable to replace stimming. A stress ball may be encouraged.
  • Seek guidance from a specialist who works with Autistic individuals if necessary. They might assess the situation and explore the reason(s) behind the behavior.
  • Learn about professional treatment options, such as therapy and medication if desired. 

After you gain further understanding of the situation, it may become clearer what management techniques to consider. Other factors to consider as part of the management process may include knowing when to intervene so that a person doesn’t get hurt, knowing when to say something or respond to an act of stimming, and knowing how to advise others, such as family, on how to help their loved one when they stim.

How online therapy can help

Has stimming become disruptive?

If you have questions about stimming or would like professional support in managing stimming, online therapy may be a good option. 

Research has shown that online therapy can be effective for concerns including symptoms of autism. For example, one such study explored the effectiveness of web-based interventions delivered to children and young people with neurodevelopmental disorders including autism. The study concluded that “web-based interventions can be effective in reducing symptoms in children and young people with neurodevelopmental disorders.”

Autistic individuals may find it difficult to communicate at times and may find some new environments to be overwhelming. With online therapy such as BetterHelp, you can communicate with a licensed therapist in a variety of ways, including calls and in-app messaging. And, you can speak with your therapist wherever you are most comfortable, including from the comfort of your own home. 

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If you have concerns about stimming related to yourself or a loved one, know that you are not alone and help is available. To start, you may consider learning more about stimming, how it differs in autism, and tips for managing disruptive behaviors detailed above. For additional support, there are online therapists with years of training and experience helping individuals address concerns around a variety of behaviors.

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