I see variations of this statement all the time, and it comes with the fear that they are extremely stressed. I’m not surprised. Stimming is, more often than not, talked about in the context of stress relief, so it’s completely reasonable that parents would come to the conclusion that all stimming is stress relief, but that’s far from the truth. So, let’s learn more, shall we?
WHAT IS STIMMING?
In short and unhelpful terms, stimming is self stimulatory input. The DSM-5 refers to it in this manner: “Stereotyped or repetitive speech, motor movements, or use of objects; (such as simple motor stereotypies, echolalia, repetitive use of objects, or idiosyncratic phrases).” (1)
What a boring, surface level definition!
It gives the basic idea from an external perspective, but it really lacks any explanation. The DSM gives a clunky, overarching definition of the what, then provides a variety of examples, but it says nothing about the why. The why is very important.
OKAY, SO WHY IS STIMMING USED?
Well, if you’re reading this, chances are you already know that it’s used as stress relief. So I won’t focus too heavily on that.
Stimming is also used as a form of communication. You know how, when you are happy, you smile to communicate that happiness, and maybe you’ll make a “sound of contentment”, or even just say you’re really happy right now? Well, I do to, but I also flap my hands. If I get super excited, sometimes my whole body shakes like a chihuahua with a 5 hour energy drink, and if it’s just too much excitement to contain, I’ll jump around and/or make a sound that can really only be typed out as “EEEEEEEeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!”
I also have stims that communicate that I’m stressed, bored, sad, content, angry… You can even tell when I’m in the middle of a shut down, specifically because I’m not stimming or moving at all.
Yes, I’m one of those people who stims all the time, but because people perceive it often as a negative thing in it’s entirety, or only as a response to negative stimuli, they think that they fact that I’m not stimming is a good thing, and I don’t tend to get the support I need, because nobody notices there’s a problem
HOW DO I KNOW IT ISN’T STRESS RELATED?
This is where communication and observation comes in. You’ve gotta work on learning how to speak autistic. What do I mean by that? Well, at it’s most basics, autistic people tend to communicate differently, in a verbal sense, so that’s important, but outside the scope of this post. So what I mean here, is that you have to ask why a stim happens, and see what the response is, or if the person in question is non-verbal and doesn’t use something like PECS, an image board, or sign language (all outstanding forms of communication when you can’t use your mouth words, and by the way these are called Augmentative and Alternative Communication, or AAC), you have to really watch what’s going on and connect the dots, as it were.
There are the obvious things, like self harming stims, but can you tell the difference between happy flapping and stress flapping? What about content rocking and upset rocking? They may be similar, but understand thing differences is important.
For example, with myself, when I happy flap, I usually have my hands higher up, like by my chest or head, and I flap very freely. When I’m stress flapping, my hands are usually down toward my side, and it’s a much tighter flap. When I am rocking when I’m content, it’s very free, typically side to side, and there might be an up and down motion involved in it too, like I’m bobbing to music. If I’m excited, I generally really push into my rocking, and tend to rock more forward and backward. If I’m stressed and rocking, it tends to be more tight, back and forth, and may be accompanied by foot shaking.
I don’t really have a simple answer for you, as every autistic person is different, so you’ll have to sort out the fine details on your own.
IS STIMMING AN AUTISTIC ONLY THING?
No! It’s not. You see stimming described with other neurotypes and disabilities as well, but non-autistic people (NT or allistic) also stim. It’s just that these stims don’t tend to be as noticeable (tapping your toe when your bored or rushed, checking the fridge for the 20th time, rocking chairs anyone?), or they are considered appropriate (the constant cheering for sports events – a.k.a. yelling to express joy in response to an external stimuli). Non-autistic folks also tend to be able to stop their stims without much of a problem to themselves, whereas it can be a serious problem for autistic people.
THAT’S ALL FOLKS
If you have more questions, or would like to add your own thoughts and experiences with stimming, please comment below!
(1). https://depts.washington.edu/dbpeds/Screening%20Tools/DSM-5%28ASD.Guidelines%29Feb2013.pdf (pg. 3)