Have you ever seen someone rocking back and forth, flapping their hands, or clicking their tongue? These repetitive behaviors, also known as stimming or self-stimulatory behaviors, are often associated with neurodivergent individuals, particularly those on the autism spectrum and with ADHD. But stimming is far more than just a quirk or habit; it's a complex and often beneficial coping mechanism that plays a crucial role in managing overwhelming sensory experiences and emotions.

What is Stimming?

Stimming encompasses a wide range of repetitive movements, sounds, and visual patterns. Some common examples include:

Motor stims: Hand flapping, rocking, pacing, fidgeting, leg bouncing, finger snapping.

Vocal stims: Humming, clicking, groaning, echolalia (repeating words or phrases)
Visual stims: Staring at lights, patterns, or spinning objects

While stimming can appear involuntary, it's often intentional and serves a specific purpose for the individual. Understanding these purposes can help us better appreciate the value of stimming and why discouraging it can be detrimental.

Benefits of Stimming for Neurodivergent Individuals:

Sensory Regulation: Many neurodivergent individuals experience sensory processing differences, meaning they perceive and interpret sensory information differently from neurotypical individuals. This can lead to sensory overload, where the world feels overwhelming and chaotic. Stimming can help regulate these experiences by providing calming or stimulating input, depending on the individual's needs. For example, rocking might provide soothing proprioceptive input (deep pressure), while hand flapping might provide stimulating vestibular input (movement).

Emotional Regulation: Stimming can also be a powerful tool for managing emotions. It can help to calm anxiety, soothe anger, and express joy or excitement. The repetitive nature of stims can provide a sense of grounding and control, especially during times of emotional dysregulation.

Focus and Attention: Contrary to popular belief, stimming doesn't always distract attention. For some individuals, it can actually help them focus and filter out unnecessary stimuli. The rhythmic and predictable nature of stims can provide a calming background, allowing the individual to better concentrate on the task at hand.

Communication: In some cases, stimming can even be a form of communication. Certain stims might be associated with specific emotions or needs, and understanding these patterns can help caregivers and loved ones better support the individual.

Acceptance and Understanding: While stimming can be incredibly beneficial for neurodivergent individuals, it's often stigmatized and misunderstood. Many people perceive it as disruptive or abnormal, leading to unwanted interference or attempts to suppress the behavior. This can be incredibly damaging to the individual, causing anxiety, shame, and hindering their ability to self-regulate.

It's important to remember that stimming is a natural and often necessary coping mechanism for many neurodivergent individuals. Instead of trying to stop it, we should focus on understanding its purpose and creating a supportive environment where individuals can stim freely without fear of judgment.

Tips for Supporting Neurodivergent Individuals Who Stim:

Educate yourself: Learn about stimming and its benefits for neurodivergent individuals.
Avoid criticism or judgment: Remember that stimming is not a bad habit or something to be ashamed of.
Offer alternative stims: If certain stims are disruptive in specific settings, suggest alternative stims that might be less noticeable or distracting.
Create a safe space: Let the individual know you understand and support their need to stim.
By accepting and supporting stimming, we can create a more inclusive and understanding world for neurodivergent individuals. Remember, stimming is not a problem to be solved, but a valuable tool for navigating the world in a way that feels calming and comfortable.

Let's break down the stigma surrounding stimming and celebrate the unique ways in which neurodivergent individuals self-regulate and experience the world. By fostering understanding and acceptance, we can create a more inclusive and supportive world for everyone.

January 24, 2024 — Christabel Asante