The Big Stim – what exactly is stimming?

The biggest tell tale sign that alerts you to the fact that Isla has autism is her exaggerated stimming.  This attracts attention and brings some curious stares when out and about.

Isla’s most obvious (big) stim is her bringing her arms up, tensing and making an “eeeee” noise. Isla does this when she is so excited she cannot contain it. She physically expresses her happiness in this unique way and you cannot help but feel her excitement.

I look back on photos of when Isla was younger and the movement pattern was already there but it has became more animated year by year.

She also has other forms of stims.

Sucking her index finger when she is overwhelmed or tired as this is comforting for her just like a younger child would do. Babies are born with a sucking reflex but this usually disappears by 4 months old.  Then it becomes an instinctive behaviour but normally stops by 5 years old. However with Isla this habit is proving a little harder to break and has led to her teeth and finger being abnormally shaped.

She also can stim by looking at lights and fan blades spinning as this must make her feel good.  When she was younger she would spin herself but doesn’t do this often now.

What is Stimming? 

Stimming is self-stimulatory behaviour or stereotypic movement.  It is the repetition of physical movements, sounds, or repetitive movement of objects giving  sensory input which feels good.

“Normal”  Stimming

People stim without knowing it every day.  Biting your nails, wiggling your foot and twirling your hair are all types of stimming behaviour.  However for most of us our stims are discreet and socially acceptable.

A person may stim when they are excited and happy or when anxious, overwhelmed or stressed. This gives our body sensory input.

For example I wiggle my foot when I am nervous, when trying to sleep or sitting for a long time.   A lot of the time I don’t know I am even doing this but it regulates my sensory system.  However this is a lot less obvious than rocking back and forward or flapping your hands that a person with autism may do to serve the same function.

Please note a child can still flap their hands or rock back and forward without having autism !

Autism Stimming 

Autism stimming often looks unusual, is exaggerated and obvious therefore being less socially acceptable.

Those with autism stim to help themselves manage strong emotions such as excitement, anxiety, anger, fear and anticipation. They also may do it to handle overwhelming sensory input (noise, light, busy environment).  Also just out of habit like neurotypical people do.

Isla has sensory dysfunction and although is hyper sensitive (to noise, busy environments) she is largely hypo sensitive.  She seeks sensory stimulation. Her body has an increased need for sensory input which explains the need to for the “big stim”.

To read a definition about sensory dysfunction click here.

Other forms of stimming that are common with those with autism are:-

  • Hand stimming, wiggling fingers in front of the face, hand flapping
  • Body stimming, including spinning, rocking, head banging
  • Vocal stimming, including squealing, groaning and echolalia

People with autism find it difficult not to stim. For Isla it is automatic and she has no control over it.  Others may need to do it to feel comfortable when they are in challenging situations.

To Stim or Not to Stim??

We have tried everything to stop Isla’s stimming over the years.  We use to try and get her to replace it with squeezing her hands together but she would only do this when reminded and then would start saying “squeeze”.  A chew necklace helps a little if we are at a movie for example.  When she chews on this you can see how much sensory input she actually needs. It normally however ends up a bit messy with a wet dribbly top.

When she was on Ritalin (post on meds coming shortly) this did stop her stimming.  However the downside was she also became a bit of a zombie and lost her personality.

So I guess it comes down to the fact of how her stimming affects her and those around her.  Once I accepted this is part of Isla and her way of expressing herself, I no longer feel the need to stop it for social reasons especially when her assistance dog Bo is by her side. People don’t really blink an eye when she is with Bo however when she isn’t they tend to be taken by surprise.

When Isla was recently sedated for an EEG she didn’t stim for hours after and was strange as it is such a part of her.  Until she started up again I knew she wasn’t back to her normal self.

I do find it hard when we are in situations where she needs to stay quiet and sometimes it can get in the way of her getting involved in an activity. For example she will be so excited about the prospect of catching a ball she will miss it as her hands are busy stimming up by her mouth.

Self injurious stimming however where the behaviour can cause the person harm through head banging, hair pulling, biting or finger/nail biting for example may need to be addressed.

Published by Sara Stythe

Hi my name is Sara Stythe and I am a mum of 3 beautiful girls. This is a place to share knowledge, resources and information I have learnt along the way on this unexpected journey with our unique youngest daughter. Isla is missing a tiny bit of her 2nd chromosome (2q23.1 Microdeletion Syndrome, recently known as MAND) causing autism, epilepsy and development delay. If you would like to receive my new blog posts by email you can subscribe. Thank you

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