If you are the parent of a neurodivergent child or teen, then you may have noticed them making repetitive sounds or motions. This behavior, called stimming, has no defined cause but is believed to be a form of emotional self-regulation. Basically, it helps people achieve a baseline level of comfort and focus if they’re feeling overstimulated, under-stimulated, or distressed. Stimming can be an important part of how neurodivergent kids process the world around them, so, for parents, understanding stimming, why it happens, and when it’s a cue that their child needs extra support is important.
Who Is Likely to Stim?
If you’ve ever drummed your fingers while waiting or tapped a foot when nervous, you have engaged in stim-adjacent behavior. Many neurotypical people will stop a behavior once it’s noticed, but those who are autistic or otherwise neurodivergent may not pick up on social cues and continue the stimming behavior.
While some repetitive behaviors may be more general, or done out of distraction or boredom, stimming refers to behaviors that are seen as less socially acceptable. The person stimming finds it much harder to stop or correct their behavior when it’s pointed out by others.
What Triggers Stimming?
Understanding the triggers for your child’s stimming can be helpful in ensuring that they feel comfortable and also help them to avoid potentially harmful stimming behaviors. Take note of when stimming occurs and look for signs that lead up to the event. Keeping a journal of your child’s stimming behaviors may help you identify triggers to avoid. While this list is not exhaustive, and it’s important to discuss stimming with your child’s doctor or therapist, here are some potential triggers for stimming:
- Changes in the environment: Whether a new school or new home, changes in places that your child once found comfortable can mean a period of adjustment.
- Excitement: It’s important to understand that not all reasons for stimming are negative. For example, being excited about an event or change can also result in stimming behaviors.
- Big emotions: Whether happiness or sadness, big emotions can be hard to regulate for anyone.
- Concern: This could be something noticed that is small, such as a new neighborhood pet, or something more immediate like an unwanted pest in the home.
- Complex emotions: When your child is dealing with stress or complicated feelings about something, stimming may be a result of them working through how to handle these emotions.
What Are the Different Types of Stimming Behaviors?
Stimming can involve many different types of behavior, such as physical motions or gestures, or even repetitive noises. These behaviors are usually classified by their forms:
- Auditory: Vocalizing or repeating certain sounds
- Tactile: Repeatedly stroking an object
- Visual: Focusing on an object
- Vestibular: Pacing or other movement-based stims
- Olfactory: Sniffing certain objects
It’s important to remember that there are many behaviors that can be forms of stimming. These are some of the most common:
- Rocking back and forth while seated
- Pacing back and forth while standing
- Hard or rapid blinking
- Snapping fingers
- Repeating the same word or sound over and over
- Repeatedly tapping or spinning nearby objects
- Opening and closing doors repeatedly while in a room
- Pulling hair or hitting oneself
- Bouncing or spinning
- Scratching, picking at, or rubbing at their own skin
- Flapping hands or arms
- Banging their head against something such as a wall or desk
While most stimming behavior is physically harmless, some of these behaviors can lead to injury—especially when done repeatedly over time.
When Is Stimming Harmful?
While physically causing harm to themselves is the number one negative side effect of stimming, there may be other situations in which it becomes a problem. Talk to your child’s therapist or work with your child to help them avoid these behaviors if they cause:
- Disruptions at school or at home
- Social isolation from peers
- Public disruptions when out at stores, appointments, etc.
- Emotional distress
When your child is distressed by their own stimming, it often means it’s time to try to address the behavior and help them find alternative methods of self-soothing or -regulating. Working with their doctor and a therapist are both important steps to accomplish this. Coaching for executive functioning can also help kids develop resilience and help-seeking skills so they can get the support they need.