What is Stimming and Why Do Neurodivergent People Do It?

Life as a neurotypical person can be hard to navigate and overwhelming at times. That’s for someone who has zero difficulties regulating their behavior, moods, or environment around them. When you have neurodivergent differences, such as Autism Spectrum and/or ADHD, it can be hard to navigate the day-to-day and feel regulated and calm. A diagnosis of autism can affect your ability to communicate and interact socially with the world around you. A diagnosis of ADHD can affect your ability to attend to your world, stay on task, and control your behaviors.

Both diagnoses are becoming more commonplace, and while they seem like completely different disorders, they actually have some similarities in their overall impact on life functioning. One of those overlaps is stimming. But what is it?

What Is Stimming?

This term, also known as self-stimulatory behavior, is a helpful way for someone to “cope” when their nervous system feels overstimulated. Think of it as a way to overcome an overwhelming situation. Neurotypical people can do this on their own, often with as much thought as you would put into breathing. Autistics and/or ADHDers tend to need a little extra support to regulate their nervous system. Stimming is a tool that can help relieve some of the built-up sensory overloads.

What It Looks Like

Methods of stimming will vary from person to person and are situation dependent. It can also present differently in children compared to adults. 

Examples of stimming behavior include: 

  • Repetitive behaviors: fidget tool use, snapping/unsnapping or zipping/unzipping fasteners, flicking, twirling hair
  • Hand mannerisms: flapping hands, snapping fingers, unusual finger placements
  • Body movements: rocking back and forth, jumping, scratching, pacing
  • Visual: repetitive blinking, following a repetitive action with your eyes
  • Auditory: repeating the same words/phrases
  • Oral: mouthing objects, chewing on objects

Why do Autistic People Stim

This is a very common and supportive coping skill for those who are autistic. Often seen in children and teens, it is a way to process and manage feelings of anxiety, fear, or even excitement. Stimming can help produce a sense of calm within the body. 

Autism has a trademark of affecting sensory processing. Stimming can help reduce any feelings of sensory overload by allowing attention to be placed on whichever action or behavior is preferred. Shifting focus to one specific task can give tunnel vision to a situation and allow for easier management. On the other hand, for those who have under-stimulation due to their autism, stimming can amp them up and give them some energy.

Why do People with ADHD Stim

Stimming is often believed to be an autistic characteristic, but it is equally fair game for anyone and any neurodiverse differences. ADHD causes difficulty in attending to tasks. Stimming can help focus attention and then the individual can better attend to the true task at hand. It can influence the way the brain works and processes the environment around it. When working on a project (work, homework, reading, writing, etc.), clicking a pen or tapping your foot repetitively can be the outlet to get some energy out and allow you to focus more productively.

Important Notes

Stimming typically isn’t problematic and may require some adjustment and acceptance. It’s important to understand why the stimming is taking place and how it helps in a given situation (e.g., the function). There is even a term called “happy stimming” used to express creativity or reduce boredom.

If stimming behavior becomes harmful, whether physically or socially, it may be worth looking into managing those behaviors. The repetitive body movements can sometimes cause injury (scratching, head banging, hair pulling, hitting). If the behaviors become extreme, they could impact relationships and/or physical safety, causing different problems.

There are resources for accepting and allowing stimming behaviors and responding to stimming behaviors of others. If this sounds familiar to you or someone you know needs support, we are here to help. Please get in touch with us for more support if needed and for a free phone consultation.

Be well,

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