Understanding the Causes of Stimming

two happy sisters outside
Knowing the causes of stimming can help you better care for and support someone you love.

What is Stimming?

If you’ve ever twirled your hair around your finger while watching a movie or drummed your fingers on your desk as you talk to someone on the phone, you have engaged in self-stimulation, or stimming. Stimming is simply any repetitive behavior that alleviates nervousness, boredom, anxiety, or tension. It is usually harmless in and of itself.

Neurotypical individuals recognize when a particular behavior is disruptive to others, and know when a behavior is inappropriate in a particular setting. For someone with less social awareness, however, it isn’t as easy to discern what kinds of behaviors are socially acceptable and the impact of stimming behaviors on others. And in some cases, the behaviors may even be dangerous, to themselves or someone else.

What Are the Causes of Stimming in Someone With Autism?

Stimming helps a person with autism release and cope with overwhelming feelings that can come from:

  • Sensory overload
  • Being in an unfamiliar environment or with unfamiliar people
  • Struggling to communicate a need
  • Wanting to avoid a particular activity or expectation
  • A desire for attention
  • Physical discomfort or pain

A therapist who specializes in autism can help you understand the specific reasoning behind a family member’s stimming. It’s important to rule out any medical causes of stimming, however. See the doctor immediately for an evaluation if you are unsure of the reason for stimming.

What Are Some Typical Stimming Behaviors in Autism?

It varies widely from person to person, but some of the more common types of stimming in a person with autism include:

  • Flapping hands or arms
  • Finger snapping or flicking
  • Stroking, rubbing, licking, or sniffing objects
  • Rocking or pacing
  • Repetitive speech, including in-depth details on a particular subject of interest
  • Staring at a ceiling fan or other rotating object
  • Scratching the skin or pulling hair
  • Arranging and rearranging items

What Are Dangerous Stimming Behaviors?

There also are some stimming behaviors that place a person with autism or someone else near them in danger, such as:

  • Hitting, biting, or punching
  • Banging their head on the floor or a wall
  • Attempting to ingest inedible objects or poisonous liquids

In these instances, of course you’ll want to intervene immediately. Yet even when a behavior isn’t dangerous, it is still a form of communication. You’ll want to know exactly what the person is trying to say and then respond accordingly.

What Are the Best Ways to Respond to Stimming?

Here are some tips to try:

  • Never punish the person for stimming behaviors.
  • As much as possible, create a safe environment that is calming and reduces stimming triggers.
  • Follow a structured, predictable routine.
  • Offer alternative stimming methods, such as squeezing a stress ball, coloring, or doodling.
  • Provide plenty of positive attention and engagement to prevent boredom or the need for attention-seeking behaviors.

Consider the Structured Living of Abrio Living’s Group Homes

Abrio Living’s small, family-like group homes provide 24/7 care and support by experts in special needs. We help individuals set, achieve, and celebrate goals, develop crucial life skills, enhance socialization, and much more.

We have homes in Peoria, Phoenix, and Glendale, and carefully match each new resident with the home environment that will be most comfortable and successful. Call us at 623-289-2927 and request a tour of any or all of our homes to learn more about this beneficial solution for those with special needs.