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Stimming is not confined to one group of people – everyone is likely to have these habits and unique tendencies, even if you have not thought about what they are.

It could be discreet, like biting your nails or fiddling with your hair. It could be tapping your fingers, rocking back and forth, or other mannerisms and movements. These things are unique, and you can often learn to recognize the stims of your friends and others simply by spending time with them. Some stims are more common, while others can be seen as annoying or unacceptable. These frowned-upon stims could include knuckle cracking, repetition, and biting yourself.

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What is a stim?

Stim is a shorter term used to refer to self-stimulation. Those with autism ordinarily speak about this. Stimming is often a physical movement or sound that somebody repeats repeatedly. It could also be specific words, moving objects, or other things.

The DSM 5, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, talks about stimming as a part of autism. It describes this as ‘stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech’. The DSM 5 also discusses that these symptoms will cause difficulty for the autistic person, impacting their ability in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning. While anyone can have stims, when it comes to autistic people, the difference is that stimming will get in the way of everyday activities and cause the person to have difficulty learning. When you reach this point, the stim is a symptom of autism.

Questions to avoid

For many parents, the first thing you will likely ask when you find that your child has stims is how you can stop them. However, it is essential to move away from this mindset and focus on other questions to help your child best.

Even if you try to eradicate self-stimulating behavior, you will likely find no way to get rid of it completely. Further, even if you manage to stop your child from doing one stim, it will just be replaced by another, and there is no way of knowing if the new one will be better or worse than the one you are trying to stop. Finally, forcing your child or loved one to stop stimming is terrible since it can force them away from you. Trying to eradicate their stim can result in them withdrawing, and you may lose your connection.

What to do

Rather than immediately trying to force the stimming to stop, you should instead try to understand why the behavior started in the first place. To begin with, you should try to determine the origin or cause of the stim. To do this, you could consider some of the more common causes, including:

  • Overstimulation. Having a stim can sometimes help those with autism to distract them from excess sensory input. This could occur when there are a lot of loud noises or bright lights and usually means that the person is receiving too much information from their senses resulting in difficulty processing it.
  • Underestimation. It could also be that the person does not have enough extra sensory input; as a result, the stim is helping by giving them more when necessary.
  • Pain reduction. It may sound counterproductive, but stims such as repeatedly banging the head or the body can help minimize the overall pain felt. This could be because performing a stim is linked to the release of beta-endorphins which trigger a feeling of anesthesia and pleasure.
  • Management of emotions. An overload of emotions can trigger Stimming. Whether it is good or bad, strong emotions can produce stims. You will likely have experienced or seen physical reactions to happiness, excitement, and pleasure, as well as more negative emotions like anger. This could include hand movements, clapping, jumping, or less favorable outcomes.
  • Self-regulation. For some people with stims, these repeated actions are a comfort method. This can be seen in children and babies who tend to repeat things like sucking their thumbs as a method of relaxation.

Why should you help others to reduce the amount they stim?

While you shouldn’t simply force your child or loved one to stop stimming, there are some reasons why it is helpful to try to reduce the amount that it happens. Firstly, stims can get in the way of learning and education, which hurts the person’s development. Stimming can also be a problem when it comes to interpersonal relationships as well as social situations. Aside from causing trouble with learning and interacting with others, stimming can also be physically dangerous as some lead to those with the stim hurting themselves and can even lead to severe injuries, including infections, and may result in needing to see a doctor or even get surgery to help with the healing process.

How to reduce stimming

Now that you understand some of the most frequent causes of stimming, you can go through this checklist to try to combat whichever cause you think is relevant to your situation. If you cannot establish the cause, try running through these solutions to eradicate as many potential causes of stimming as possible to help prevent it.

  • Go for a medical exam. One of the potential causes of stimming is that the person is experiencing pain that they cannot communicate in any other way. This could include ear infections, migraines, or other chronic pains. Make sure to take the person for a check-up to get them help or eliminate this as a cause.
  • Regulate the sensory environment as well as the emotional environment as much as possible to make sure the person is comfortable and try to reduce the amount of stimming that occurs.
  • Undergo an exercise routine. Taking part in exercise, especially a vigorous routine makes people less likely to stim since they already have the beta-endorphins associated with stimming.
  • Continue to interact during stimming. It is suggested that you should try activities where you take turns and don’t try to stop your child from stimming throughout. Eventually, they should start feeling more comfortable doing the activity, so the stimming should reduce naturally.
  • Create a positive association. You could use the stim to reward the child. For example, interact with them, engage in play or work, and reinforce this positive activity with the stim. Julia Moor suggests that giving children the freedom to stim and allowing them to be themselves is very positive and can minimize the amount of time a day that they spend stimming.
  • Join in. Other programs suggest that you could even try participating in the stim too. When somebody begins to stim, try doing it alongside them. For example, if they play with their hair, you do it too. If they begin to rock, you can do that as well. This could be a fun way to make them feel more accepted and allow them to feel more comfortable with the stim, which is part of who they are. This is a great way to build a relationship as it can help them to feel that they aren’t alone and have someone to relate to. Now, the stim is part of learning and helps them improve their engagement and interaction, turning it positive.

Will a person with autism ever stop stimming?

As a parent, you may see stimming as a negative aspect of autism; however, it is important to accept that it will always be a part of your child’s life. Instead of trying to eradicate it, you should embrace it and allow your child to feel accepted and comfortable in who they are. Following the previous steps is the best way to ensure your child is not feeling any unnecessary discomfort. Still, beyond this, the best option is to understand the root of your child’s stimming behavior and help them to understand that it is normal.

Feeling comfortable can help to reduce stemming, and nurturing your child in this positive way can also help you to build a much stronger relationship and base of communication with your child, which will be a great help throughout their life. If a stim is particularly dangerous or harmful, make sure to go to a doctor, but for general stims, allowing your child to be themselves is the most important thing.