What Is Stimming?

Learn what stimming is and why children with autism do it from pediatrician and child development expert Asma J. Sadiq, M.D. in this Howcast video.


So what is stimming in a child with autism spectrum disorder? Stimming is not quite a medical word, but often parents say that and describe a certain kind of behavior, which means stimulation. It's like self-stimulating behavior, which can be a lot of the stereotypies that you see in a child, the repetitive hand shaking or shaking a toy repeatedly. Parents describe this sometimes as an increase in stimming, for example, or an increase in this behavior, which can be due to anxiety or a child who is overstimulated. It can actually be a sign. Our children can often engage in these behaviors to calm themselves, or when they're overexcited and cannot self-regulate.

It's a matter of seeing where this falls on the spectrum of behavior. You can do it with language. A lot of parents call stimming as echolalia, they keep repeating that sound. That's also verbal stimming. You can have non-verbal stimming, which can be repetitively going around in circles or closing a door back and forth, or the faucet back and forth. A lot of stimming behavior is actually body movements. You can see that with shaking a part of their body. I have children who want to hold onto a toy or a string and wanting to shake it repeatedly and that's also stimming.

I want to differentiate that from motor tics, for example, where a child can be blinking or have facial grimacing, or can be smacking their lips or making sounds. These are tics. They could be motor or vocal tics and these are different from stimulating behaviors. You need to look at differentiating stimming, stereotypic behavior which is seen more in the autism spectrum, to a motor tic that may be occurring in your child. You need to get to the root of the cause of this stimming, whether it is being done when the child is by themselves, for example and they go into this kind of repetitive behavior, or they're doing it because they're overloaded with a sensory overload, for example, or a certain anxiety that's bothering them. Maybe they've had a food that they weren't tolerant to, and it's a way of saying that this is not suiting their body.

Children who have, for example, Gluten Sensitivity, or Dairy Sensitivity, if it's been removed from their diet and then reintroduced at some point. Parents come back and say "Oh my god, the stimming behavior increased, and that let me know that something else has happened with my child", or that there's been some kind of infraction.

It can be used as a guide, and it's a way of a child actually communicating to you. Stimming behavior is a commonly used word and commonly seen in children with the autism spectrum disorder.

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