Are we supposed to stop our children from stimming?

You may or may not be on the spectrum, but chances are you’ve “stimmed,” or know someone neurotypical who does.


Stimming is associated with kids who have autism spectrum disorder; the act of self-stimulation (like rocking back and forth, flapping of the hands, rocking, or humming, among other behaviors) is believed and proven to be a calming, comforting activity, especially when faced with stressful events or circumstances. But lots of people – with autism and otherwise – stim. Some of us twirl our hair, while others pick at their nails. Some tap a pen on the table, while others chew on their lips. Basically, repeating body movements or making certain noises can be referred to as stimming.


But there is a difference between stimming in neurotypical people and stimming in autistic people. When an autistic person stims, it may negatively impact the way they function in normal situations. The stim may also be harmful – some autistic kids will bang their heads or other body parts against something until they’re injured.


Kids with autism who stim aren’t doing it because they have nothing better to do, of course. It’s a response to stress. It can be someone learned, something that takes them away from feelings of fear, anxiety, or sadness. However, when a kid with autism gets overexcited or overwhelmed with joy, they may stim then too.


If you’ve got a child who stims, here are some tips:


First, find out why your child is stimming. 


It may be that your child has a sensory input disorder, and they’re looking for sensory input consistently. Perhaps your child bites – in this case, consider that your child isn’t looking to hurt anyone else or themselves, but rather seeking sensory input from somewhere, and biting provides that. If they’re a biter, keep chewy toys or chewy foods nearby, so they can be given something to fulfill the needs, rather than being made wrong for seeking something that makes them feel better.


Next, consider when your child is stimming.


Are they stimming where it’s loud and where there are lots of people? Maybe the noise stresses them out. Maybe they’re trying to find a way to “disappear” from the noise without having to leave. In this case, a set of headphones is a great idea if the child really cannot be removed from the environment. But sometimes, the best-case scenario involves placing the child in a space they feel safer in, like a quieter room where they can feel more relaxed and at rest.


The third tip is to try exercise. 


Exercise – like running, jumping, or swimming, among other physical activities – is a great way for kids with autism to learn to enjoy moving.


Finally, don’t stop your child from stimming (unless they’re hurting themselves or others).


Stimming is soothing. Stimming can bring calm to a child when they’re overwhelmed and afraid. Trying to stop a child from stimming may cause more aggressive, harmful behaviors in the long run. Support your child without making them feel as though stimming is wrong.

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