Stimming is a term used to describe self-stimulatory behavior that occurs in a repetitive fashion. While highly prevalent in autistic people, it’s not exclusively confined to the autism spectrum; it is also seen in other intellectual and developmental disorders. Personally, I hate defining that term due to the seemingly unavoidable similarities there are in describing stimming (which is typically completely unsexual in nature) and actual sexual activities. Part of me also feels self-conscious referencing the actual terms stimming or self-stimulating with neurotypical people who are not well-versed with autism jargon because I fear they will harbor the same word association and be judgmental or equally uncomfortable. With all that said, stimming is so common in autistic people that it’s often a symptom used in the battery of criteria involved in diagnosis because of its hallmark nature with the condition and the fact that it’s more readily observable than many of the internal, mental symptoms. Despite my vehement detesting of the terms, I regularly engage in stimming activities in a completely unconscious manner.
Stimming can include a plethora of repetitive behaviors, ranging from repetitive movements like hand flapping, spinning, rocking, tongue thrusting, scratching, or pacing, or repetitive sound production like humming, tongue clucking, syllable repetition, or lip smacking. The variety of stimming behaviors is nearly as vast as the variety of people on the autism spectrum. In young children, stimming also frequently presents as movement of an isolated part of a toy, such as spinning a model car’s wheel or repetitively flicking a block on one of those activity mazes with the colored wires and movable beads or blocks.
The particular stimming behaviors I engage in have changed over time and are also dependent on the situation. Stimming usually occurs when the person is trying to regulate themselves in their environment. Sensory or emotional overload (even positive emotions, like feeling super excited) and high levels of anxiety are my biggest triggers. However, I don’t deliberately “decide” to start clucking my tongue, or bobbing back and forth, or furiously winding the pull cord for the blinds around my finger. It just happens. For a long time, I was completely oblivious to engaging in these behaviors. It wasn’t until I started occupational therapy (OT) for sensory processing disorder, before I even knew I was autistic, where a trained professional pointed out my frequent stimming activities, which alerted me to them. People in my life had commented on things like clucking and habitual hand wringing many times in the past, but since these activities were so subconscious, I always denied them and didn’t believe I was doing anything obsessively or constantly.
Once I learned about stimming, I started to actually notice it in myself. There are still plenty of times I’m unaware that I’m doing any sort of self-stimulatory behavior, but I catch myself when I focus on how I’m feeling in moments that it’s clear I feel overloaded or agitated. Being in fluorescent lights or hearing certain frequencies of sounds in a looping pattern really seem to invoke some type of regulating, repetitive response out of my body. PTSD and stimuli that trigger memories of my trauma also seem to be strong instigators.
Ultimately, there’s no harm in stimming and it shouldn’t carry any shameful stigma. It’s my autistic brain’s way of helping me cope with emotions and stimuli in my environment, which, if effective, lessens the difficulty or discomfort I’m having. With that said, because I’m a highly self-conscious person by nature and cringe at the idea of sticking out, I try to tamp down the occurrence of any noticeable stims when out in public or around people I’m trying to “impress.” This is, essentially, futile because the instigation and perpetuation of a stim at any given time must be at least 96% subconscious. It flies under the radar of my awareness. Still, it’s part of my controlling nature, perfectionism, hatred for drawing attention to myself, and my lack of self-compassion that drive me to hold myself accountable for trying to prevent the appearance of any stimming activities outside of my home. I’m sure part of my uneasiness with the possibility of some sort of demonstrative stim emerging around others is due to the relentless teasing I experienced in college and grad school regarding my reliance on this behavior that I had zero awareness of. My utter obliviousness made me feel like peers were just inventing fodder to have further reason to pick on me; now I recognize how annoying my clucking and whirring and flapping must have been!