Stimming is a sensory tool many autistic (and non-autistic) people use to help regulate when they are overstimulated emotionally or sensorily. It refers to a range of repetitive movements, sounds, or use of objects/media that autistic people engage in as a way to regulate their sensory and emotional experiences. This can take various forms, including hand flapping, body rocking, jumping, finger tapping, repeating words/phrases/sounds, repeating certain songs or shows, or tensing body parts. Stimming usually occurs when someone is feeling extreme emotions (such as fear or joy), experiencing heightened emotional content, or being in an environment that is too loud, bright, itchy, visually busy, or hot for the specific person’s sensory profile.
Stimming serves as a powerful self-regulation tool, as the physical act of stimming helps autistic people maintain emotional equilibrium in a world that can often be overwhelming. It can be compared to how a neurotypical person might take deep breaths or fidget with a pen to manage a stressful situation. The repetitive nature of stimming behaviors can be soothing and reassuring. It allows autistic people to create a safe, soothing, or predictable environment.
Stimming is often used as a form of communication, as autistic people may use stimming to express joy, excitement, frustration, or discomfort. It serves as a way to connect with others and convey feelings when other forms of communication methods may be challenging.
As stimming is an essential coping strategy for many autistic people, trying to repress stims can lead to increased anxiety and distress, as well as an overarching feeling of dysregulation. It is an integral part of many autistic people’s lived experiences, and it should be celebrated as a valuable tool for self-regulation, communication, and self-expression. Instead of trying to stop or reduce stimming behaviors, we should support autistic people in finding stims that meet their sensory and social needs. When we allow autistic people to stim openly at home, school, work, or other environments without judgment, we are creating a powerful message that we support each person’s unique needs and are invested in creating a more inclusive environment.
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