So what IS stimming?

But what is stimming anyway?

Well, the term “stimming” is short for “self-stimulation.” And a “stim” is any self-stimulating behavior.

Maybe you’d like a nice simple official definition. Merriam-Webster’s medical dictionary defines self-stimulation as:

self-stimulation (n)
\ˈself-ˌstim-yə-ˈlā-shən\
stimulation of oneself as a result of one’s own activity or behavior

But really, how much does that help?

What about this one from Wiktionary?

stim (plural stims)

  1. Any of various repetitive actions, such as flapping the hands, wiggling the knees, shining a light into one’s eye, and spinning in a chair, typically performed by autistic people.

That’s a little better, but it still doesn’t give a good picture of what stimming really is.

The fact is that official (and official-ish) stimming definitions are usually vague and rely on two or three examples. What’s more, they rarely agree with each other. And while it’s easy to find that stimming is associated with autism, few sources mention that it exists in the neurotypical (NT) population, or what the cause of a stim is likely to be.

Here at The Stimming Checklist…

…stimming is very important to us. We want to share how we think about stimming, not from a medical or technical point of view, but from the eyes and ears and hands of all of us who stim and love to stim.

We know there are as many reasons for stims as there are stims, but often the cause of a stim is some need for self-regulation, or a way to feel in control of ourselves and our experiences. A few examples of this include (but are not limited to!):

  • Emotional Regulation – When we feel an emotion or a collection of emotions very powerfully, stimming can help us manage these feelings without overloading. Often emotions like sadness, anger, or anxiety will prompt stimming as a way to both experience these less pleasant emotions while also keeping our cool. It’s equally important for many of us to stim when we experience pleasant emotions too! Hand flapping, bouncing, and toe-walking are some of the many stims that often help us regulate positive emotions.
  • Sensory Regulation – Many autistic individuals and other stimmers experience hypersensitivity (bolder or more extreme sensation) or hyposensitivity (duller or more muted sensation). Many of us experience both depending on the situation and which of our senses are involved. For many people who experience more or less sensation that is typical, stimming is a way to hold onto a familiar and consistent sensation where we are completely in control.
  • Social Regulation – If we are not comfortable in a social situation but would prefer to take part anyway (maybe we are making friends, attending a meeting with new coworkers, or even surrounded by our closest friends but with more people in the room than feels ok), stimming can help us interact with others the way we want to. Some of us are introverts and need a way to relieve the pressures of socializing, and others of us are very social creatures who crave daily social interaction, but need a way to stay in the moment without being overwhelmed. Many of us are even ambiverts, who need both social stimulation and the safety of isolation, and we need a way to make sure we know what we need and when. Stimming helps us do that!
  • Pragmatic Regulation – Some people find other people’s stims distracting, and this is certainly something that can be addressed in situations like school or work where everyone needs to be able to focus. But often when we stim around other people, especially large groups of people, we do so in order to minimize distraction. In a crowded lecture hall with a fascinating speaker, we might want to jump up and down with excitement and ask a million questions because we are so engaged, but if we believe this will not be helpful to ourselves or our classmates in the long run, we might choose a stim like twirling our pens or rocking in our chairs to remain focused and engaged without disrupting others.

But isn’t stimming bad?

No! There are many therapies and parenting strategies that work to avoid stimming, but even when these methods are in use, stimming is not bad. Here at The Stimming Checklist, we generally disagree with behavior therapies that discourage all stimming, because we have seen evidence in our own lives and in the lives of people we care about that repressing all stims is counterproductive and potentially quite harmful.

It is important to remember though that stimming should be safe. It is not uncommon to use a stim that can lead to intentional or unintentional self-injury. The stimmer’s safety has to be the first priority, but we have to remember that even self-injurious stims have a root cause and a function. Simply stopping a harmful or unsafe stim will not solve the underlying problem, and another stim is likely to spring up in its place, potentially more harmful than the first.

The bottom line is that “good” and “bad” are not helpful terms to talk about stimming, even to talk about individual stims. A stim that is unsafe and harmful for one person might be safe and helpful for another.

Anything else you’d like to know about stims, stimming, and stimmers? Anything you’d like to contribute from your own experiences with stimming? We’d love to hear from you and let our site grow! Email us at info@what-is-stimming.org, or check out our About Us page to contact each site admin directly.