Have you ever wondered why some children flap their hands while experiencing sensory overload?

It’s something called stimming…

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What is stimming?

The word ‘stim’ is short for self-stimulation. Stimming – or stims – are a wide variety of self-stimulating behaviours usually involving stereotypy, repetitive movements or sounds, that people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) may exhibit when experiencing sensory overload or high levels of anxiety.

There are numerous stims that can serve as a calming strategy including: 

Hand mannerisms – finger-flicking, nail-biting, hand-flapping, bending hands or fingers out at an angle, rubbing the skin, scratching, picking, hitting the backs of their hands, drumming fingers repeatedly on a surface, repeatedly shaking the hands

Body movements – rocking, head banging, stroking a piece of cloth, making faces, stamping, assuming postures that look contorted and uncomfortable, shaking the head or shrugging the shoulders, pacing, swaying or rocking back and forth, spinning in circles, walking on the tips of the toes, arching the back while sitting, sniffing objects or people

Visual stimulation – looking at something sideways, watching an object spin or fluttering fingers near the eyes, staring at lights, doing things to make the vision flicker such as repetitive blinking

Repetitive behaviour – opening and closing doors or flicking switches, hair pulling, chewing, licking or mouthing objects, repeatedly walking a path, listening to the same song or noise over and over, making repetitive vocal sounds, tapping ears, snapping fingers, Echolalia - repeating sounds, words or phrases without any obvious regard for their meaning

Why stim?

While stimming may seem unusual, these behaviours do serve a purpose for those on with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Children tend to 'stim' when they are anxious, excited or otherwise experiencing intense emotions including being:

Oversensitive – stimming can calm them down because it lets them focus on one thing and takes away some of the sensory overload

Under sensitive – stimming like hand-flapping or finger-flicking can stimulate their ‘underactive’ senses

Anxious – stimming might reduce anxiety by focusing their attention on the stim or by producing a calming change in their bodies

Excited – some children might flap their hands when they’re excited. They sometimes flap for a long time when they’re excited, or flap, squeal and jump up and down at the same time

What to do about stimming?

Most stims are harmless, however there are strategies to help reduce stimming, including:

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Remove the cause - when stimming occurs identify the stimulus causing the overload and see if it can be removed. Also, try to address what is causing the overload behaviour and pre-emptively remove the stressor or wear calming compression clothes to help reduce sensory overload

Redirect to something else - redirect the person to a comfort stim that is less distracting like holding an ice cube, listening to music, or drawing circles on a piece of paper with a pencil

When I did stims such as dribbling sand through my fingers, it calmed me down. When I stimmed, sounds that hurt my ears stopped. Most kids with autism do these repetitive behaviours because it feels good in some way. It may counteract an overwhelming sensory environment or alleviate the high levels of internal anxiety these kids typically feel every day.
— Dr Temple Grandin