Thinking About Stimming

Flapping, spinning, jumping, rocking, pacing, flicking… stimming takes many forms. This is a topic that calls for deeper understanding and yes, respect, on the part of typically developing family members, friends, teachers and therapists; along with the nurturing of self-knowledge and compassionate self-acceptance by the person who stims. For the longest time, self-stimulatory behavior – widely referred to as stimming – was (and often still is) deemed inappropriate and targeted for extinction by some autism treatment and educational programs. The prevailing theory early on was that if it is allowed to occur even a little bit, it will increase in frequency. Actually, in my classroom in the early 1980’s, and later with children, adults, families, and professionals with the University of North Carolina’s TEACCH Program, I discovered just the opposite. In the classroom, by “allowing” my students engage in self-stimulatory behavior on a regular basis, sometimes at specific times and places, I noticed that the amount of stimming actually decreased. That was back in the 1980’s, and even then it felt right to me to remain positive about a person’s natural body movements. I tried to avoid negative connotations to these behaviors, as long as they were not harmful to the one stimming, or others in the vicinity. 

I still remember feeling joyful and playful while engaged alongside my students in spontaneous jumping, flapping – with my contribution of air guitar, dancing and singing with the Jackson Five blaring on the record player. I also remember the good-natured amusement on the face of our principal during his unscheduled visits to my classroom when he found us jubilant in the play area! I discovered through trial and error that my students became calmer when I not only increased the level of structure throughout the day, but scheduled time for movement – even sanctioning stimming! In fact, I watched them closely and modeled some of our activities during P.E. on their spontaneous stims.  Not battling my students’ flapping, rocking and other movements; not focusing on elimination unless they were physically harmful to the person, helped promote an all-around positive and up-beat school experience for my students.

That was 40 years ago. I am still thinking about stimming, and there is even more to think about.

Imagine what it may feel like, to be a child whose natural body movements are labeled inappropriate, wrong, bad, and so deviant that they must be stopped immediately. In some cases, punishment is an accepted as part of the treatment. The unquestioned mandate given so widely and freely of “Quiet Hands!” teaches children that their hands – and their natural movements – are wrong. Repeatedly prompting a child to stop stimming (either through implication, announcement, or demand) often results in the child’s conclusion that enjoying the moment; or helping oneself cope in the moment; or purely moving in their natural way; is so bad – so wrong, that it must be noted and addressed, in a negative manner. A large amount of time and attention and energy is devoted to its elimination by the people responsible for her educational program. IEP goals are dedicated to its eradication. For some autistic children and adults in certain treatment and educational programs, “Quiet Hands” and its accompanying strategies may actually be experienced as an act of aggression to the person who moves their hands, leaving them feeling vulnerable, attacked, and unprotected. This vivid inner experience typically remains unknown to the teacher or therapist or parent. Read the book Loud Hands: Autistic People Speaking, published in 2012 by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, one of the early books written to better understand a perspective that may be very different from those privileged with typical development. Now you can pick up almost any book written by an autistic author to get a first-hand account of stimming, and the experience of being submitted to the elimination of it.

It is true that stimming often results in the person appearing different than what is expected. Okay. It serves as an effective reminder for us to educate peers, siblings, school staff, and the community at large, about diversity. And respect. It could free us all to come up with novel and truly inclusive ways to interact and have fun, in an equitable manner. Stimming is a natural behavior that is often enjoyable and/or otherwise beneficial to the person who is stimming. There is an overabundance of information for autistic children and adults on how to be social, and even though much of it unquestionably claims to come from an inclusive philosophy, most “social skills strategies” emerge exclusively from a neurotypical perspective with its focus on how to help the autistic person interact better socially. The assumption that to “interact better socially”, means to “interact in a socially-accepted, mainstream, non-autistic manner” is usually left undisputed.

What if all students – both autistic and non-autistic – learn about stimming, and about how, why, what it is? That everyone stims in their own ways? And that sometimes stimming is associated with enjoyment, pleasure, happiness?  Or a way to take care of oneself, maybe get calm, centered? Or a reaction to the need for something to change. What if the teacher, therapist, parent, or friend announced aloud, “It’s time for a stim break, everyone!” And then the whole class or whole family or maybe just friends jump up and flap, spin, or otherwise stim? Together. What might this communicate to the one who naturally stims…and the ones who notice, who watch, who wonder and learn?

There are many ways to be. And many ways to enjoy. And many ways to be together. To me, that’s a real “social skill.”

For everyday practical information for your children, students, or family members, I refer you to the following topics in chapter 2, The Sensory Experience, in my book Autism…What Does It Mean To Me? (Future Horizons, Inc.)The following workbook pages directly support self-knowledge and mutual understanding about stimming and other related, noticeable body movements.

Stimming: How I Do It (p. 41), Stimming: Why I Do It (p. 42), Understanding Stimming (p. 43), Tics (p. 45-46), Self-Injurious Behavior (pp. 51-53), For parents, teachers, and therapists (pp. 54-65)