Many children and teenagers with autism stim. While stimming is not necessarily dangerous, it can be a cause for concern among parents with children whose stimming behaviors may cause physical harm.

Read on as we dive into why children with autism stim, what it looks like, and how you can help them manage it.


What is Stimming?

Stimming, also known as self-stimulating behavior, is repetitive or unusual body movements or noises. Here’s what stimming looks like.


What Does Stimming Look Like?

Stimming varies a lot among children and teenagers with autism. For instance, some children have mild stimming mannerisms, while others spend a lot of time stimming. The self-stimulating behavior can also vary depending on the situation. For instance, some children start stimming or even stim more when they feel anxious or stressed.

Stimming behaviors may include:

  • Finger-snapping
  • Spinning or tapping objects
  • Hand and finger mannerisms like flapping and finger flicking
  • Unusual body movements like pacing back and forth and rocking back and forth
  • Spinning and twirling
  • Repeating phrases or words
  • Humming
  • Hard blinking
  • Opening and closing doors
  • Flicking switches
  • Covering and uncovering their ears

Just like there are different stimming behaviors, children with autism may self-stimulate due to several reasons.


Why Do Children With Autism Stim?

Stimming seems to help children with autism manage emotions like anger, excitement, fear, and anxiety.

Stimming may also help children with autism manage overwhelming sensory information or stimulate underactive senses. Moreover, these behaviors may help reduce sensory overload and improve focus in children who are hypersensitive to sensory information.

Likewise, stimming can help stimulate the senses of children who are under-sensitive to sensory information.

These behaviors can also affect children with autism in various ways.


How Does Stimming Affect Children With Autism?

Although stimming might come across as unusual or distracting to the average person, it’s not necessarily harmful. There’s still a lot of debate on the actual cause of stimming, but experts consider it a tool for emotional self-regulation. This means that stimming is not always a sign of discomfort. It can also be a sign of happiness or excitement.

However, some stims have the potential to be harmful and, if not regulated, can cause self-injury. Stims that require management to prevent harm include the following:

  • Excessive nail biting
  • Excessive self-scratching or self-rubbing
  • Head-banging
  • Ear clapping
  • Hitting or slapping oneself
  • Hand biting

But that doesn’t mean that stimming is all bad. It also presents some benefits for children with autism in managing their senses. Most children with autism have sensory processing disorder. They either under-respond or over-respond to stimuli such as textures, sounds, and smells.

For instance, they might be overcome by loud noises and experience sensory overload (hypersensitivity). In the same measure, they might be less responsive to stimuli, like not responding or even noticing a noise (hyposensitivity).

When overstimulated, stimming can help them block out excessive sensory input. Stimming can also provide stimulation in cases where they are hyposensitive to certain stimuli and also help them manage strong emotions, which would otherwise overwhelm them.

However, since self-injury is always possible, it is advisable to help children with autism manage stimming. Here’s how you can do that.


How to Help Manage Stimming

Some people say that you should let children with autism stim until the point where it starts affecting them. There’s some truth to this sentiment since it doesn’t necessarily need to be controlled unless it’s causing problems such as physical harm.

You may need to manage your child’s stimming mannerisms if;

  • Their stimming is destructive or dangerous
  • Their stimming has caused social isolation
  • Stimming is affecting their ability to learn
  • Stimming is causing problems for other family members

It is easier to manage stimming once you figure out the reason behind it. Every child is unique and, therefore, has different triggers. Therefore, try to evaluate the situation just before your child starts stimming. This way, you’ll be better able to understand their triggers.

You can also consider working with an autism or behavior specialist, so they can help you determine the triggers. Once you’ve got that covered, you’ll be better able to manage your child’s stimming by keeping them away from their triggers.

Here are a few other ways you can help your child manage stimming.


Changing the Environment

Reducing the environmental and social stress around your child can help reduce the risk of sensory overload. If your child finds the environment too stimulating, they might need a place to go or a calm activity or toy to focus on.

Conversely, if your child needs more stimulation, they might benefit from extra playtime, engaging toys, or even playing a little music in the background.

Some schools have specially designed sensory rooms for children with autism who need extra stimulation. These rooms generally have equipment children can jump on, spin around, and swing, as well as a variety of visually stimulating toys to keep them engaged.


Working on Anxiety

Anxiety is one of the most common causes of stimming behavior in children with autism. You can determine whether your child is stimming due to anxiety by watching when and how much they stim.

If you determine that your child is stimming because they’re anxious, you can consider changing the environment to reduce their anxiety. In some cases, you may not be able to change the environment around your child. In such situations, it’s better to teach your child new skills to deal with their anxiety, ultimately reducing stimming.


Increasing Exercise or Physical Activity

Recent studies show that increased physical activity may help decrease stimming and increase appropriate responses. There’s still a lot of controversy over how it works, but the consensus is that certain types of physical activity can help children with autism refocus and have fun. This way, they release all that energy and anxiety pent up inside them.


Preparing Your Child

The world is unpredictable; unfortunately, children with autism bear the brunt of it, resulting in more stress and anxiety. As a parent or guardian, you can’t protect your child from unexpected situations, but there are certain circumstances where you can prepare them to deal with new environments, activities, and stimuli that would otherwise increase their anxiety.

For instance, before visiting the doctor’s clinic for an appointment, you can take your child there so they can familiarize themselves with the environment. Likewise, if your child fears new activities, you can help relieve their anxiety by showing them a video of children having fun participating in the activity.

If all else fails, it helps to have a backup plan, such as their favorite toy or storybook. Having something to keep them engaged can help them relieve stress and the stimming that comes with it when faced with new circumstances.


Promoting Routine and Familiarity

People with autism often describe their world as unpredictable and overwhelming. Having a daily routine helps relieve some of the stress and uncertainty.

Knowing what to expect in various situations can also offer your child a sign of comfort. That way, they are better able to manage their anxiety. Therefore, try creating the same routine for each activity, such as when they wake up, how you prepare their meals, and the route they take to school.


The Bottom Line

Stimming is typically harmless. It’s just a means of dealing with sensory overload. However, it is advisable to manage it if your child has aggressive stimming mannerisms like hand biting and head banging. It would help if you also considered seeking professional help so your child can live a more socially acceptable and fulfilling life.



If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.

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