Defining stimming

I’ve written about my own stims before. Even when I wrote that post, I was a bit doubtful about the idea of a defined concept of ‘stimming’. And since then, I’ve become even more unsure.

Everyone defines stimming differently, and gives it a different purpose. I think the reason it has such a vague non-definition is that it’s a word coined by neurotypical people to describe whenever an autistic person did something they thought was ‘weird’. From the outside, it’s impossible to know what someone’s thinking or why they are doing something. So that means that a whole lot of different things end up being lumped together under the word ‘stimming’, making it not very useful.

Here are some of the reasons I do things which would be classed as ‘stimming’:

  • I actively enjoy it – e.g. pressing something that makes a clicky sound.
  • I don’t know why I do it, it just happens without me noticing – e.g. I rock automatically when I’m sitting down in certain positions, and it requires active concentration to not do it.
  • A kind of in-between of the previous two: I feel uncomfortable if I’m not doing it – e.g. folding up my legs when I’m sitting in a chair.
  • To release nervous energy – e.g. I pick my fingers and click my jaw much more frantically if I’m anxious or excited because I have twitchy energy that has to go somewhere.
  • To block out or process bad sensations – e.g. when I’m somewhere loud I often tap my hand rhythmically to give me something to focus on.
  • To express myself – e.g. when I’m excited, freaked out, confused, (or… pretty much anything now I think about it), I sometimes do a single very quick hand-flap.
  • To handle bad emotions – e.g. when I’m very anxious or upset I sometimes punch my leg because it feels grounding.

And I’m pretty sure there are others too.

Looking back at that list, I think it can be divided into categories (nothing like a bit of categorisation to help me understand something!):

  • For the sake of the sensation. This includes things which are enjoyable, things which are automatic, and things which make me feel more comfortable.
    I’d say that this category is entirely the result of a weirdly wired autistic sensory system. Everyone has sensations they find enjoyable, some of mine are just a bit more unusual. Most people find themselves moving automatically every now and then, it just happens more often and in different ways for me. And a lot of people feel more comfortable in certain sensory situations, they just maybe have a wider range of what’s good for them.
  • To deal with bad stuff. This includes processing my own emotions, bad sensations, or anything else which causes me stress.
    I think this category is the intersection of an autistic sensory system and an autistic brain. The autistic brain part is what causes us to get more stressed or bothered by things which NTs can handle (like an unpleasant sensation or a negative emotion). The sensory system part is what allows us to be comforted or calmed by specific sensations or actions.
  • Body language. A lot of my body language is similar to NT people’s, but a lot of it isn’t.
    I would put this category firmly in the autistic brain section. Whatever it is that’s different in my brain, it give me different instinctive ways of expressing myself.

I’d be interested to know whether these categories resonate with other autistic people.

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6 thoughts on “Defining stimming

  1. Stimming is so hard to define, and you’re probably right that it’s just a word that nonautistic people lump all our ‘weird’ behaviors under. I can relate to those bullet points and the categories make sense. I really like that you included a body language category, because stimming can indicate our feelings, though the emotions associated with particular forms of stimming might be different for each person.

    My pet idea about stimming is that it’s displacement activities. There’s a theory that in animals like birds, when an animal is stimulated to perform a particular behaviour, eg aggression, but is unable to do so, eg because it’s held back by fear of the opponent, the impulse to perform the behaviour has nowhere to go so it gets sent to an entirely different type of behaviour, eg preening or nest building. And there’s an idea about autism called the intense world theory which says that autism is caused by having a hyperactive brain. So I think maybe we have all this extra nervous activity in our brains that gets put into things like rocking and fidgeting. There’s no evidence for this that I know of, it’s just my idea.

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  2. I do it mainly to relax. I have a hunch that most stimming involves production of theta or alpha waves, but due to movement, it probably hasn’t been studied via EEG.

    Banging my head on the pillow is a favorite. That may look violent to an onlooker, but it’s more like rocking in a rocking chair for me – very soothing. Especially goes great with music on headphones. One of my favorite things to calm down is simply to listen to ambient type music while laying down and hitting my head on the pillow.

    What’s funny is neurotypicals “stim” as well. Almost everyone does. Foot tapping, using fingers as drums…children do it more than adults, and it’s usually discouraged because it can be distracting to others, but most adults still do it to some extent, too. Autistic stimming just seems to be a more pronounced stimming than what the neurotypicals do (few neurotypicals slam their head on pillows, for instance).

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    1. I have some that probably look violent or uncomfortable to onlookers as well. I guess picking my fingers is the most obvious one: I often shred them until I’m bleeding, but the ‘satisfaction’ is still worth it.

      I completely agree that NTs stim as well. That’s yet *another* reason why the overall concept of ‘stimming’ isn’t particularly meaningful. Because it’s used to define something that’s unique to autistic people, and yet it actually isn’t unique to use at all.

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  3. I feel pretty much all of this!! Esp the bit about categorisation. I find your blog very easy to understand bc I think in similar patterns / directions / paths. idk. I don’t really have to adjust my thinking to understand your writing. Yeah.

    I didn’t consider skin picking to be a stim for me although I definitely do it. This is mostly because I like to stim in other ways but I want to stop picking my fingers so much. I associate stimming with getting positive input or regulating negative feelings, and thus leading to a better state of mind. Picking my fingers causes great shame and anxiety afterwards, even though it def serves a purpose (I do it when I feel ambiguous negative emotions and when I’m in uncomfortable situations) I want to unlearn it. To wrap this up, I’d love to see the word stimming be reclaimed and redefined by autistic people to mean [a specific thing]. Also, there should be other words for other kinds of behaviour; or maybe it’s just me, I want clear meanings and unambiguous words.

    That reminded me of something I’m often confused about. I speak Finnish as my first language and there is a subtle meaning between “ensi viikonloppuna” and “ensi viikon loppuna” (both sound the same in spoken language), which translate to “on the next weekend” and “at the end of next week”. These phrases have different meanings on different days of the week and being the pedantic person that I am, I always have to make sure which meaning NT people are talking about on each occasion. (Spoiler: it’s always the other one but I can’t recall which.)

    It’s a bit like “you can have soup or stew and bread”. Can I have bread with soup or not? Could a well placed comma make a difference? This is also why I like maths and logic so much. “[Soup or stew] and bread” vs. “Soup or [stew and bread]”.

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    1. I feel similarly about picking my fingers – I would like to be able to stop doing it. I don’t particularly feel ashamed about it, but it causes me a lot of pain; often to the point of not being able to do certain things for a day or two while a particularly bad injury heals.

      I am really happy to hear that you relate to my use of categorisation. And, in reading your comment, I strongly relate to YOUR categorisation too! I completely agree about ambiguous language and how it’s always the other meaning, and how logical language would be much easier to understand. I especially chuckled at the weekend/end of week part. My family have been having an ongoing argument about what people mean when they say “next week” or “next weekend”. No-one can ever agree on it!

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