Stimming: It's Not Just for Autistics Anymore
Updated: Nov 7
By Patty Laushman
When you think of stimming, you might picture autistic children who flap their hands or pace back and forth.
But the reality is that everyone stims to some degree.
Even people without any diagnosis stim when they bite their nails, twirl their hair, or pace when they're on the phone. In fact, stimming can be beneficial for everyone!
In this post, we’ll take a closer look at stimming and how it can be normalized for everyone.
What Are Stims?
Stimming is short for self-stimulatory behavior and it’s characterized by any action that soothes or stimulates the senses. This can look different for everyone.
In essence, a stim is any action or object that provides sensory input and helps to regulate mood and body functions.
Many autistic people use stimuli to soothe themselves and cope with anxiety or stress.
However, stimming can also be a fun and enjoyable way to express oneself. For instance, some people enjoy listening to music through headphones, playing with a fidget toy, or watching objects spin.
While stimming is often associated with autism, it is actually a common behavior among neurotypical people as well.
Everyone has their own unique way of stimming, and there is no correct or incorrect way to do it. The important thing is to find activities that provide relief and bring joy.
What Are Some Examples of Stims?
Here are a few examples of stims to give you an idea of what might be categorized as one. Chances are, you’ve recognized a few of these as behaviors you engage in yourself or as behaviors even your neurotypical friends engage in!
While some stims can be harmful, others are simply harmless mannerisms or tics.
Common examples of stims include repetitive movements such as hand flapping, pacing, or rocking; repetitive vocalizations such as grunting or humming; and repetitive self-stimulatory behaviors such as staring at lights or spinning objects.
In some cases, stims can serve a purpose, such as providing proprioceptive input or helping to calm an individual who is feeling anxious.
In some cases, stimming can become harmful, especially if it involves self-injurious behaviors such as head-banging, biting oneself, or picking at one's skin.
Even these stims serve a purpose: helping us release energy our bodies can't seem to process any other way, but because they can become harmful, they should be avoided.
Why is Stimming Helpful (or Even Essential) for Autistic People?
There are many benefits to stimming, both for neurotypical people and those on the autism spectrum.
For starters, stimming can help to diffuse difficult situations and provide a much-needed outlet for excess energy. It can also help improve focus and concentration.
In fact, some of the world's most successful athletes use stimming techniques to help them get "in the zone" before a big game. Michael Phelps is known for biting his lip before he dives, while tennis champion Serena Williams often bounces her ball before she serves.
Stimming can also help reduce stress levels and promote relaxation. This is why many people find fidget toys helpful; they provide an outlet for restless energy while also helping to calm and focus the mind. Examples of popular fidget toys include worry stones, spinner rings, and Rubik's cubes.
Do Neurotypical People Stim?
It's a common misconception that only autistic people stim. In reality, neurotypical people stim, too - they just might not realize it.
Common examples of stimming include rocking, clenching fists, tapping fingers, and humming. Some people stim in response to anxiety or stress, while others stim when they're bored or fatigued.
In some cases, stimming can even be a way of coping with sensory overload. While autistic people are more likely to stim in response to certain stimuli, neurotypical people are also known to stim in certain situations.
So the next time you see someone tapping their foot or fidgeting with their hair, don't assume that they're autistic.
What Can I Use Instead of Stimming?
Stimming helps soothe anxiety, regulate emotions, and ground you in the present moment. But there are times when stimming just isn't possible. Maybe you're in a meeting at work, or at a family gathering, or on a date. Whatever the situation, there are ways to cope without stimming. Here are three of the best coping strategies.
1. Take Slow, Deep Breaths
👈🏽This one is easy to do and can be done anywhere, at any time. Taking slow, deep breaths helps to calm the nervous system and ease anxiety. Inhale for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of two, and then exhale for a count of six. Repeat this cycle 10 times and see how you feel.
2. Drop Your Shoulders & Shake Out Your Hands
Tension often builds up in the shoulders and neck area when we're feeling anxious or stressed. This coping strategy is great for releasing that tension and can also be done anywhere, at any time. Simply drop your shoulders down away from your ears and shake out your hands. You can also roll your head around in circles if that feels good.
3. Visualize Your "Happy Place"
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, close your eyes and visualize your "happy place." For example, that might be standing on the edge of a beautiful waterfall surrounded by lush greenery.
It doesn't have to be complicated; it can be anywhere that makes you feel calm and happy. The key is to really use your senses—what do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What does it feel like? The more vivid the better!
Stimming is Totally Fine! Here Are Some Ways to Make it Work for You
Ever feel like you just need to fidget with something in your hands or pace back and forth to focus? Well, you’re not alone! People of all ages stim.
Despite what you may have been told, stimming is normal and there’s no reason to be ashamed of it. In fact, stimming can be helpful in regulating emotions and managing stress. If you’re looking for ways to make stimming work for you, here are a few ideas.
Incorporate Appropriate Stims and Sensory Activities into Your Daily Routine
One way to make stimming work for you is to incorporate appropriate stimuli and sensory activities into your daily routine. This might look like listening to calming music while you work or taking a break to walk outside in nature. Maybe it means having a fidget toy on hand to play with when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Experiment and find what works for you!
Another way to make stimming work for you is to be proactive about it. If you know that certain situations are likely to trigger a strong urge to stim and you don’t want that stim to happen for whatever reason, plan ahead so that you have a strategy in place.
For example, if being in large crowds makes you want to pace back and forth, bring a small object to hold onto or wear comfortable shoes so you can alternate between standing and sitting as needed. The key is to be prepared so that you can avoid feeling overwhelmed or embarrassed in the moment.
Find More Helpful Stims
If you’re struggling to find stims that work for you and are not harmful to yourself or those around you, look online for ideas – there are lots of great resources out there, including Gerald Hughes' Ultimate Guide to Stimming: 120 Stims and Strategies for Stress Reduction, Focus/Attention, and Sensory Regulation! Once you find a few stims that help you feel more relaxed and focused, try incorporating them into your daily routine as described above.
Don’t Suppress Your Stims
It’s important not to suppress your urges to stim – doing so can actually make them stronger over time. If you’re in a situation where it’s not appropriate to stim openly, see if there’s a way to do it discreetly.
For example, if you need to pace back and forth but don’t want people to stare at you, see if there’s an empty aisle or empty room where you can walk without being noticed. Or if you need deep pressure but can’t sit still, try wearing compression clothing or using a weighted blanket.
There are lots of ways to discreetly stim – experiment until you find what works best for you!
Consider Therapy for Disruptive Stimming
If your urges to stim are causing significant distress or are interfering with your daily life, consider seeking help from a mental health professional who specializes in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other conditions that commonly involve repetitive behaviors.
Most of the time, stimming is not a problem and does not require any intervention, unless you feel like it’s disrupting your life or your relationships.
Stimming is not just for autistic people. In fact, we all stim. It’s a natural part of life. If you find yourself needing to stim more often than usual or in ways that are disruptive to your life, it might be time to seek help from a professional.
But for the most part, stimming is nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. So as long as your stims aren't harmful to yourself or others, go ahead and give yourself permission to stim away!