Want to better support your neurodivergent learners?

Want to better support your neurodivergent learners?

Break down the stereotypes around stimming

By Gabby Cushman


This month, the topic we’re focusing on is celebrating neurodiversity, or different ways of thinking and learning. Part of breaking down stereotypes around neurodivergent individuals includes talking about stimming/self-stimulatory behaviors. Children and adults alike, regardless of if they are considered neurodivergent (having a brain that functions in ways that differ significantly from the societal standards of “normal”) or neurotypical (having a brain that works similarly to the dominant societal norms), participate in stimming in a variety of ways. In this blog, we’ll break down what exactly self-stimulatory behavior is, stereotypes about stimming in neurodivergent people, and managing stims when needed or wanted.


What is stimming?

Stimming, or self-stimulatory behaviors, are actions that are done to achieve a certain feeling. This can be calmness in overwhelming or stressful situations, or to assist with attentiveness when someone is having trouble focusing. Stims can range from vocal/auditory to physical or visual actions. As stated above, both neurodivergent and neurotypical people engage in stimming. For example, I find myself exhibiting certain stims in different emotional states. I tend to bite my nails when I’m feeling nervous, pace while talking when I’m excited about something, and fidget with items around me when I’m having trouble focusing in a conversation. While learning more about stimming, you may discover that you also participate in self-stimulatory behaviors!


What are some different types of stimming?

Stimming can look like a variety of different activities. Here are some examples:

Physical stims

  • Biting your fingernails or picking at the skin around your nails
  • Twirling your hair around your fingers
  • Cracking your knuckles
  • Jiggling your leg/foot
  • Rocking back and forth
  • Pacing/walking on your tiptoes
  • Bouncing/jumping/twirling

Vocal/auditory stims

  • Whistling/humming
  • Repeating words/phrases
  • Covering/uncovering ears
  • Finger snapping

Visual stims

  • Rearranging/organizing objects
  • Staring/gazing at objects like ceiling fans or lights
  • Repetitive blinking
  • Turning lights on and off
  • Moving your fingers in front of your eyes


Why is stimming more often associated with neurodivergent people?

Although most people participate in self-stimulatory behaviors, stims are more commonly associated with neurodivergent individuals. Why is that? It’s partly because we don’t associate more “common” stims -- such as nail biting or whistling -- as stims at all. However, for neurodivergent people, stimming may be triggered for different reasons or occur more often than it would for neurotypical people. 

Neurodivergent individuals may experience sensory overload, trouble adapting to change, intense anxiety or frustration, or difficulty communicating effectively more often than neurotypical people. Stims can be an effective way of coping with these experiences. Neurodivergent people may also stim for more extended periods of time -- sometimes for multiple hours. Although this can be true for certain people in the community, remember that this can’t be applied to all neurodivergent individuals. Neurodiversity is a spectrum of vastly different experiences, including how one self-stimulates. It’s vital to view stimming as something everyone can do regardless of our differences!


How can certain stims be managed?

Not all types of stimming need to be stopped or managed. Stimming is often a healthy coping mechanism to process strong emotions. However, suppose a stim is harmful, interfering with daily functioning, or just one you personally would like to have more control over. In that case, there are ways to manage self-stimulatory behavior better. As I mentioned earlier, I tend to bite my nails and even pick at the skin around my nails when I feel stressed. I’ve been engaging in this activity since I was a child, so my nails have deteriorated over time, and I want to stop this stim. Choosing to work on controlling a stim is a personal decision unless you, as a parent, guardian, or teacher, notice that a stim is hurting a child. That being said, here are some ways you can manage self-stimulatory behaviors if needed/wanted:

  • Figure out if there’s anything that triggers this particular stim. Can anything be done to reduce this trigger?
  • Maintain a low-stress/calming environment when possible.
  • Encourage healthier stims or behaviors - for example, there are “fidget” toys for both adults and children.
  • Avoid punishing yourself or your little ones for stimming. This is a harmful type of reinforcement, and a different stim will likely replace the previous stim as a result.
  • If you or your little ones struggle with managing a self-stimulatory behavior, consider contacting a behavior specialist. 


Overall, talking openly about stims and recognizing that all people can stim helps destigmatize these behaviors and creates safer environments for both neurotypical and neurodivergent people to express themselves in ways that make them comfortable. Discuss with your kids what self-stimulatory behaviors you may partake in and why. Or talk about some examples of stimming provided in this article. The better you and your little ones understand stims, the better you can advocate for the neurodivergent community.


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