Intentional Stimming

It’s a very true saying that if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.  We’re all very different, with varying strengths, abilities, sensitivities, and needs.  But one thing we pretty much all have in common is stimming. 

What is stimming?

“Stimming” is the affectionate term for self-stimulating behavior.  Everybody does it, including NTs.  Do you sometimes tap your pencil, twirl your hair, drum your fingers, or jiggle your foot?  That’s all stimming.  Autistic stims look similar, or they may be a bit more involved, like rocking, flapping hands, or biting and chewing.  We also tend to stim for longer periods than most NTs.   

Why do autistic people stim?

Simply put, stimming helps us deal with things.  Some theorize that stimming helps to block out the extra sensory input we get, or that it provides sensory stimulation when we need it.  Everyone agrees that it helps us regulate and express emotion, which isn’t that odd – NTs are known to jump up and down when excited; we jump or rock or flap.  It’s also generally soothing and helps us handle stress, whether environmental or psychological or emotional.  That’s the key to intentional stimming.     

Intentional stimming

Stimming throughout the day can help autistic people keep our stress down and thereby function better.  This is a great thing!  This is something that, done with intention and purpose, can help us to get by in the NT world, to work and do the business necessary to live our lives. 

When my anxiety kicks up in the evenings, for instance, I know that I need to eat but I’ve probably waited too long.  So while my dinner is cooking, I can pace or sit and rock for a while until it’s time to focus on eating.  It works a treat! 

In the middle of a workday, with too much to think about, if your brain is going foggy and you can’t think straight, you might take a few minutes to focus on a fidget toy or stroke a soft, fuzzy fabric.  Imagine how quickly you feel better when petting an animal – that’s all the time it takes for a stim to kick in.    

If you find yourself gnawing on your pen to help you concentrate as you study or read, you might look into getting a chewy stim.  They’re made to hold up to biting and chewing, and they’re so much easier on your teeth! 

Choose your stims carefully

If you’re going to stim intentionally, you should be conscious of how you’re stimming and choose your stims deliberately.  While the best options are always those that come naturally to you, it’s important to avoid stims that might cause any harm to yourself or anyone or anything else.  Of course, head banging, scratching your skin, or pulling your hair are not good choices, but neither are gouging a hole in your desk with a pen, tearing off wallpaper, or chipping paint.   

Rocking or bouncing is a harmless and unobtrusive stim that many people find very soothing, great for intentional stimming.  “Flappy hands are happy hands”, as the saying goes – flapping can be a wonderful option, too.  Stimtastic makes affordable, discreet stim toys of all descriptions, from spinners to fuzzy necklaces to aromatherapy pendants and lots more.  Their chewy stim toys are available in different firmness options to suit anyone’s stim needs. 

Stimming is a perfectly normal form of stress relief and an aid to concentration for autistic people.  But it doesn’t have to be something we fall back on only when we’re under stress or getting overwhelmed.  By using it with purpose and intention instead of trying to squash or inhibit it, we can make stimming a useful tool for improving our functioning. 

Now I’m sure some of you are thinking, “that all sounds great, but I have to work”.  I know the struggle!  But there are ways to stim at work, too.  In a future post, I’ll focus on office-safe stimming that won’t draw attention from co-workers.   

Intentional Stimming

Do you stim intentionally or do you wait for it to come up on its own?  Have you been taught to suppress your stims?  What intentional stimming do you think would be most effective?

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  1. Brianna

    April 11, 2019 at 1:28 pm

    This is fantastic information, thank you so much! I love your blog. I have two daughters on the spectrum. They are young (school age) but I still find all of this information incredibly helpful.

    1. Grace

      April 11, 2019 at 2:27 pm

      Thanks, Brianna!
      I’m glad you’re finding some info you can use. Part of what I intend to do here is offer some explanation for parents of kids on the spectrum. If you have any particular topics you’d like to see addressed here, please let me know in comments or email!

      1. Brianna

        April 11, 2019 at 8:15 pm

        That’s fantastic. I’d love to hear your take on how “open” it is fair to be with your kids’ diagnosis. WHen they were toddlers, I used to share with whoever, but now that they are older, I feel like maybe it’s their story to tell and not mine to decide to share? We never keep it secret or consider it something that should be a secret. But I also realize that as they gor older, they might not want to lead with that information lest they be prejudged unfairly. Does that even make sense? It’s hard to articulate :-/

        1. Grace

          April 18, 2019 at 11:42 am

          I think it kind of depends on the kid and the circumstance. Of course, their teachers always need to know, no discussion there. If they’re old enough to have feelings about their diagnosis, then I think they should be in charge of any other disclosure – definitely once they hit double digits, when kids can be so nasty, it should be their choice. I hear that some kids simply don’t care who knows, because to them it’s just another trait, like their eye color. Part of teaching your kids to advocate themselves (which I’ll be talking about at some point here) is helping them understand when it’s important to talk about it and when it isn’t, so I think you’re on a good track so far.

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