Updated: Feb 26, 2019
What is stimming?
Stimming is self-stimulatory behaviour most frequently observed in children with autism. Flapping of hands, tapping, rocking, and spinning are all types of stimming. There are also verbal stims which include repetition of certain words and phrases.
Even among the general population, many engage in some sort of self-stimulatory action. For example, some people like to bite their nails, play with their hair, pick at a zit/scab, etcetera.
Why do children with autism stim so much?
Many children with autism also have sensory issues. This means that some of their senses may be oversensitive OR under-sensitive. For example, they may recoil from contact with other people because it feels too jarring on their skin, or they may seek out contact because they are under-stimulated. In other words, a physiological difference between individuals with ASD and the general populace may be one of the reasons why children with autism have a greater tendency to stim.
Regulatory, self-soothing behaviour
Additionally, when an individual is overwhelmed in a sensory aspect, it is very difficult to focus or feel safe. Stims are therefore also thought to function as a protective factor in over-stimulation, in which the individual calms themselves by stimming to block out other distressing environmental stimuli. Sometimes, when the child is overly agitated or excited (both positive and negative emotions), they may also present with stimming. Stimming behaviour, therefore, may be an expressive, self-soothing, and regulatory behaviour for individuals with ASD in their challenge to integrate with the world.
Difficulty picking up social cues
As humans live together within a society, the ability to pick up social cues is crucial. We learn to interact and play by socially accepted norms because of our ability to observe and learn them. We also understand cues given by people when they are angry or disgusted because of us. For example, most people would not pick their nose in public because they get looks of disgusts or frowns when they do so. They feel shamed and will understand that their behaviour is not appreciated by their audience. Consequently, they learn to curb themselves. Unfortunately, the ability to pick up such social cues are precisely lacking in children with autism, likely causing them to be less responsive to social conditioning. Furthermore, the desire to blend in and be accepted by society may be outweighed by the physiological need to stimulate themselves, giving them little motivation to stop stimming.
Why are people so fearful of this?
Much of the stimming behaviour exhibited by children afflicted with autism, such as flapping hands or verbally repeating phrases, are not considered socially accepted behaviours. Often, they look strange, attract a lot of attention, and may be disruptive (eg. loudly reciting lines from a TV show). The latter, especially, can feel intrusive; people would likely feel uncomfortable sitting next to someone constantly talking to themselves or making noises despite the behaviour being socially inappropriate. Some of the behaviour can also be self-injurious, like banging their head on the floor or hitting themselves. Consequently, observers can become very uncomfortable.
Perceived lack of control
Especially because of the unusual behaviour, stimming tends to attract a lot of attention. Other than the discomfort from the possibly disruptive behaviour, one of the biggest issues is the perceived lack of control.
When engaging with the rest of society, most of us function on certain assumptions about how others would behave – the social conventions we stick to. Whenever we observe disruptive, unconventional behaviour that remains unmitigated by negative social cues such as frowns and stares, it is easy to leap to the conclusion that the individual exhibiting said behaviour lacks control over the way they are acting or are choosing to act in a way different to social conventions. As a result, they appear to be an unpredictable factor unknown to us, sparking fear. People do not know what to expect.
While I can empathise with people feeling somewhat perturbed when they are encountering something different or unknown to them, I believe we can investigate it with a curious but kind heart. As a society, what we need to do is to try to understand from their perspective, as much as possible, about what makes them the way they are. While there are still many things unclear about autism, one thing we do know is that it is on the rise, globally. Rather than condemn a part of our society simply because it does not fit in with most of us, wouldn’t it be more humane to learn to empathise with those who may, not by choice, be different?