Stimming Explained

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Author: Sarah Ryan
Last Updated: Oct 18th 2021  Published: Oct 18th 2021

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What Is Stimming?

If you have heard of or seen examples of stimming before, then it was likely in relation to ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). It’s a common, self-stimulating, stress-relieving behavior for those on the spectrum, one which a 2019 survey found that over 80% of respondents find enjoyment in.

However, whilst it is true that stimming can be a common symptom of ASD, it is actually a behavior that can be seen commonly from people across all backgrounds and all walks of life, regardless of whether they’re neurotypical or neurodivergent. Stimming is also referred to as stim.

Nevertheless, there remains a lot of myths, misconceptions, and unfair judgments around this habit. In order to minimize stereotyping and social stigma and maximize understanding and compassion, you should take the time to understand stimming, and what could be compelling your loved ones to do it. 

Stim: What Counts?

Stimming is a ubiquitous term that refers to any repetitive self-stimulatory behaviors, movements, or actions meant to engage the senses in an invigorating way. Some common examples of stimming observed by people of all backgrounds include:

  • Nail-biting
  • Whistling
  • Joint cracking
  • Tapping with fingers or feet
  • Cheek biting
  • Rocking or shaking
  • Bouncing legs
  • Itching or rubbing the skin
  • Pen or pencil tapping

These examples of stimming are engaged by people from all walks of life. You’ve probably seen at least one person engaging in these behaviors at least once in your life. Perhaps you’ve observed yourself engaging in one or more of these behaviors through times when you’ve been bored or stressed. 

These are pretty commonplace examples of stimming, and examples that prove that stimming is a far more common behavioral tendency than one may assume at first glance. If you know people who are neurodivergent or on-the-spectrum, or wonder whether or not you yourself might be, then more niche, unique stimming behaviors may be observed, behaviors like:

  • Flapping hands
  • Walking on tiptoes
  • Staring at moving objects
  • Pulling hair
  • Sniffing things
  • Pacing around
  • Focusing on lights
  • Continuously blinking
  • Feeling particular objects
  • Organizing, arranging, or rearranging objects

Neurotypical or neurodivergent, all sorts of people find all sorts of soothing relief in these self-stimulating behaviors.

Developmental Delays & Stimming

It should be evident from the previous section that stimming is a broad categorization of natural human behavioral patterns that serve to comfort people through times of ennui or anxiety. To quote neurologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl from his seminal 1946 book “Man’s Search For Meaning”, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Through stressful times when everything else seems out of control, stimming serves to offer the stimmer their own way, their own sense of control, and a subsequent sense of calm and catharsis. As neurodivergent people are especially vulnerable to suffering sensory overwhelm and overload, stimming can offer an outlet to control that overwhelm. 

It serves as a way to focus the senses when the senses would otherwise be too difficult to process. Overwhelmed people may shout, cover their ears, or push their eyes closed to block out the world, so for them, stimming may serve as a coping mechanism to remain grounded in the world. 

These stimming behaviors are often more apparent in neurodivergent people experiencing sensory overwhelm, which might perhaps be part of the reason why people generally associate stimming as a byproduct of neurological conditions. In any case, it’s good to think about stimming with empathy and understanding toward the reasons why people do it, as well as additional insights into your own motivations.

ADHD & Stimming

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a widespread neurological condition around the country and the globe, particularly amongst young people. The most recently reported Centers For Disease Control analytics observed that nearly 10% of children in the United States struggled with ADHD, and it’s reasonable to assume that figure’s only grown in the few years since that study was published. 

However, ADHD is not inherently a slight against a person’s intellect or development, though the condition still can present obvious sensory challenges like the similar sort faced by other neurodivergent peoples, which is why they may observe stimming behaviors not commonly seen in neurotypical people. 

For those with ADHD, they may see fidgeting as their pre-eminent form of stimming, though they could engage with it in a wide variety of other ways such as:

  • Squirming in their seat
  • Disrupting or accidentally talking over others
  • Picking skin and hair

Amid the chaos wrought by difficulties focusing, these stimming habits offer a release that helps people focus and mitigate unpleasant feelings. None of these behaviors are innately harmful or done with malicious intent to disrupt others. Rather, these behaviors help the person facilitate a more focused level of sensory processing and input, even if they may look distracted or preoccupied while doing so.

Do People With ADHD Stim?

If untreated, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can lead sufferers down a maladaptive slippery leading to sensory challenges, which can then lead to greater behavioral problems, which can then lead to greater social/relationship dysfunctions.

Treating these stimming patterns can be a far easier endeavor said than done; it may be a habit one slips into unconsciously, and one they may find a lot of enjoyment and personal relief in. Asking an individual to kick this habit is effectively acting them to kick a major source of comfort in their lives. But when this habit slips into maladaptively interfering with their lives, then intervention is needed to prevent further disruption and harm to their quality of life.

Ultimately, whether or not you choose to seek help with these stimming patterns, whether you or your loved one is dealing with them, can be dependent on:

  • Whether or not the stimming is disrupting your goals
  • Whether or not the stimming is disruptive to your quality of life
  • How much you’re willing to actively seek help

What Causes Stimming?

Stimming serves to fulfill a multitude of utilities, utilities which are all contextually dependent on:

  • The personal motivations of the individual doing them
  • The environment and/or situation the individual is currently in
  • The time of day when an individual may need these utilities

This self-stimulating arises calming sensations in the individual, and why they seek this sense of calm is individual to them. As we’ve emphasized previously, these behaviors can serve to offer a sense of focus, control, and catharsis to the individual, and extreme sensory overload is often what drives the desire for this control and catharsis. 

While these behaviors may appear more pronounced in neurodivergent individuals, they often control and mitigate more pronounced reactions like yelling, crying, or bouncing around. By focusing an overloaded sensory system on these behaviors, stimming helps offer a sense of control and prevents the instances of those more out-of-control reactions. 

Releasing that emotional overload also serves to release pent-up emotional energy in situations where it may have no other possible release. As hyperactivity is an extremely common byproduct of ADHD symptom clusters, it’s no wonder why those who deal with it may turn to stimming as an outlet to release all that bottled-up tension. 

Whether they’re neurotypical or neurodivergent, many people also view stimming as a useful distraction from boredom. After all, the more time you spend concentrating on bouncing your leg and humming your favorite tunes is less time you’re spending thinking about how boring the situation is. Overall, stimming can refer to a wide set of exceedingly simple, yet exceedingly effective coping skills, but when does it become maladaptive?

When Is Stimming A Problem?

Stimming is a generally harmless behavioral pattern that doesn’t affect the lives of the people doing them, nor the people around them. But when can it begin to adversely affect the lives of people dealing with developmental conditions, or those within their orbit? 

One of the most common (and obvious) examples of maladaptive stimming is daydreaming. Whilst other instances of stimming can serve as focusing or grounding, daydreaming will obviously stand to take a person out of the present. 

Moreover, disrupting conversation by excess stimming and humming are other instances where stimming may require treatment. As this type of stimming negatively impacts socialization, it should be addressed and treated from an early age. Below are some other scenarios where stimming may warrant help:

Stimming At School 

Stimming and ADHD tend to manifest in extremely different ways, all of which manifest differently depending on the individual. Sensory overload sufferers may not deal with ADHD, nor vice versa, but students who deal with both may manifest their condition maladaptively in the classroom by:

  • Talking or making noise over the educator
  • Talking or making noise over their peers
  • Moving around in their chair
  • Getting out of their chair and pacing around the classroom

When students present these behaviors, then further intervention is needed to help them stay focused on learning healthily and socializing healthily.

Stimming In The Home

Stimming usually doesn’t present as many issues in the household as it does in the outside world, though there may still be cases where further intervention is necessary. For instance, if the stimming is distracting the stimmer from eating meals or staying present through other sit-down social events with their loved ones, then that’s a problematic behavioral tendency that should be addressed through therapeutic intervention. 

Moreover, when stimming diverts the individual from completing any chores or household errands, then that’s another scenario where stimming can cross the line into maladaptive disruption. At its most maladaptive and harmful, individuals with severe ASD, depression, or suicidal ideation may turn to self-harming behaviors as stimming habits. If you suspect a loved one is self-harming, you should observe:

  • Signs of inexplicable cuts, scars, bruises, burns, or bone fractures
  • Conspicuously wearing long sleeves, even through hot days
  • Signs of a low, withdrawn, or depressive emotional state
  • Sensitivity to your loved one’s feelings, and the diligence to keep them safe

According to the World Health Organization, over 264 million people worldwide are believed to be affected by depression, and more broadly, the National Institute of Mental Health believes that nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults live with at least one diagnosable mental health disorder

If you and/or a loved one are struggling, you are not alone. Consider reaching to crisis resources like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), and immediate intervention if the individual is in immediate danger. 

Getting Help With Stimming

If stimming is maladaptively affecting your life, then we would strongly advise you to seek help. A professional therapist can help you by answering your questions related to stimming and/or ADHD, prescription medications, social skill training, and offering concrete tools to help you improve your sensory management skills and day-to-day functioning.

Are there no therapists in your immediate area? No problem! There are plenty of great affordable, trusted, and fully confidential online therapy services and we’re proud to make them even more affordable. At ReliefSeeker, you can get up to 50% off your first month, and help you find the most affordable relief money can buy.

ReliefSeeker.com and all content herein is intended for audiences 18 and older. ReliefSeeker.com does not offer medical advice, always consult your doctor before undergoing any medical care. ReliefSeeker.com publishes news, information, and reviews about healthcare service providers for entertainment purposes only. You may see paid advertisements for companies that offer medical advice and services.


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Sarah Ryan

Sarah covers mental health, parenting, and women's health-related issues at ReliefSeeker. As a mother of two wonderful kids with a long career in marketing & media, Sarah's perspective on access to world-class healthcare connects to both heart and mind.