Stimming is a commonly observed behaviour that can be a little concerning to watch if we are not aware of the causes and reasons behind it. But once we understand more abut stimming, we can start to try and help the person manage it - if there is even a need to.
What is it?
"Stimming" is a behaviour consisting of repetitive actions or movements of a type that may be displayed by people with developmental disorders, most typically autistic spectrum disorders; self-stimulation.
What does stimming look like?
Stimming or self-stimulating behaviour includes arm or hand-flapping, finger-flicking, rocking, jumping, spinning or twirling, head-banging and complex body movements.
It includes the repetitive use of an object, such as flicking a rubber band or twirling a piece of string, or repetitive activities involving the senses (such as repeatedly feeling a particular texture).
Why does stimming occur?
The reason that stimming occurs is not fully understood. Different research suggests that stimming awakens the nervous system and provides a pleasure response from the release of certain chemicals found in the brain called beta-endorphins.
Dopamine is produced in the central nervous system and is it known to increase pleasure sensations. For example, we also get a dopamine "hit" when we eat something loaded with sugar. Some suggest that a lack of sensitivity in the sensory system provokes stimming to take place by stimulating the sensory system.
Others suggest that stimming might focus the attention away from an overwhelming experience and produce a calming effect. Either way, stimming is unique to the individual and it's not always clear to other people. It is however, part of the diagnostic criteria for autism although it's not always related to autism. When stimming is frequent or extreme, such as head-banging, this does more commonly occur in people who have neurological and developmental differences.
Examples of stimming
Stimming might involve movements such as bouncing, jumping, twitching, flapping of the hands, repeating words or phrases, rubbing the skin or scratching, repetitive blinking, pacing or walking on tip toes. It can also include, leg or foot jiggling, tapping pens or pencils, biting fingernails or whistling. Stimming behaviours can take many forms.
Can Stimming be controlled? (And should it be?)
Stimming doesn't necessarily need to be controlled unless it's causing a problem. However, if the person is in danger then you should seek help from your general practitioner. Stimming can cause social isolation and be disruptive at school too, and in this case it's wise to seek support from school itself or from a GP.
Stimming can come and go depending on the situation. Sometimes stimming will improve as a child matures but stimming behaviours can become worse during stressful times. It takes patience and understanding, but many people with autism can learn to manage stimming. Over time, achieving self control can improve wellbeing, and life overall in school, at work or in social settings.