Stimming and Autistic Stress

Stimming is both a physical expression of stress—either bad stress or good stress—and it's a way to help us calm down.

Stimming is special

A lot of the challenging behaviors that we see with autism are, at their core, more extreme versions of the normal range of stress reactions.

Stimming is special, though, because it’s both a result of stress, and a strategy to calm down. Stimming is self-soothing in action!

Similar to how noise cancelling headphones actually add certain sounds to cancel out others, the hand flapping, jumping, rocking, spinning, toe walking, or other self-stimulating—“stimming”—behaviors, provide pressure or motion (proprioceptive and vestibular input, if you want to get technical) or other sensory inputs to our nervous system, to counteract the effects of the unwanted or overwhelming sensory inputs we are already getting, and that calms us down.

Stimming for everyone!

Stimming isn’t actually abnormal, we just stimm more obviously than most people. For example, you might fidget when you’re nervous, or wring your hands, fiddle with your hair, tap your foot, or tap a pen, or chew the end of it. Have you ever covered your ears at a loud siren? Or stroked your dog to soothe your nerves? Or paced in a hospital waiting room? These are all stimms, they’re just so common that they’re socially acceptable.

Our stimms tend to be bigger, or louder, and less common, but they’re accomplishing essentially the same function. They help us get through a difficult situation, and in the best case scenario, help us calm ourselves.

I’ve been glad to see some of this gaining mainstream acceptance, like fidget toys. In fact, a current trend among psychotherapists is to encourage clients to rock back-and-forth, to imitate the naturally soothing motion of rocking an infant to soothe it. And rocking chairs are time honored tools for self-soothing.

I hope this represents a trend toward greater acceptance, because repressing our stimms is not only really difficult, it makes everything feel so much worse.

Have you ever tried not to fidget when you really need to? Or not to tap your foot when the person next to you complains it’s annoying? It’s really hard.

Twice the price

In fact, it takes a lot of our energy at a time when we can least afford to spend it.

So trying to repress our stimms is a double whammy. It both doesn’t let us get the calming effect, and it uses up a lot of energy to try to repress the impulse, which further heightens our stress load.

Happy stimms

To muddy the waters just a bit, sometimes hand flapping or rocking or other stimms can also be an expression of joy. Just like you might want to dance, or punch the air, or hug everyone around you when something good happens, autistics have the same need.

Remember that tug-of-war game, where both good things and bad things can pull you away from your center? Stimming is an obvious sign that your kid is feeling pulled from away from their sense of “normal“—regardless of whether the thing that is pulling them is bad or good—and that they need to respond physically.

Repressing happy stimms is just as difficult and energy draining as any other, and can turn a happy young person into an upset one who needs to stimm for the exact opposite reason.

Instead of trying to repress or reduce stimming, which is just a symptom, it’s far more effective to do something about the cause.

So what can you do about your kid’s stress? I’m so glad you asked.

This is an excerpt from my free e-book, Autism, Stress, and Self-Reg: A Guidebook for Parents and Caregivers, which you can download for free.

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Heather Cook

Heather Cook

Heather Cook is an autistic writer and autism coach. She finds joy in helping neurowonderful adults, teens, and parents find and remove the hidden barriers that are holding them back, so their natural strengths can shine.

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