The term “stimming” is a shorthand used by the autism community to describe repetitive self-stimulatory behaviors like hand-flapping or rocking. While these behaviors are often used to diagnose neurodivergent issues, they are also common for children who are developing typically. So, parents who see repetitive behaviors in children may struggle understanding what is autism stimming and what is normal developmental behavior. It helps to consider how disruptive the stimming behaviors and how long they are persisting past their developmentally appropriate window.
There are two broad groupings of stimming behaviors according to Dr. Somer Bishop, associate professor in psychiatry at University of California San Francisco. “The problem is that these behaviors are not specific to autism,” she explains. “So we see them across a whole range of neurodevelopmental disorders as well as in kids who are typically developing.”
The two categories are split between repetitive physical behaviors and behaviors that show a child’s need for sameness.
- Repetitive sensorimotor behaviors:
Hand and object flapping
- Repetitive use of objects:
Lining up toys
Spinning objects that aren’t meant to be spun
- Sensory interest:
Peering closely at objects
Repetitively feeling, licking or sniffing objects
Insistence on sameness:
Wearing the same outfit exclusively
Need for strict schedule
Eating the same food daily
Bishop notes that parents of toddlers could easily check off each behavior. But she notes that toddlers are repetitive by nature. The repetition is essential to learning. “Once they figure out how something works they like to do it over and over again,” she says.
The insistence on sameness is also a trait of early childhood. It’s not uncommon for children to find a groove that suits them and stay in it. Again, there’s a good developmental reason that kids behave this way — it’s about developing a sense of self.
“My daughter wore her Halloween costume everyday for three months and refused to wear anything else.” Bishop says. “This is absolutely just a part of typical development and learning to assert your autonomy and have control over something.”
Repetitive behaviors can also be connected to an immature neurological system. Babies, for instance, will flap their arms in excitement or frustration. But that is simply because they do not have the neurological connections to speak, point, or otherwise indicate what’s going on. So how do parents understand what’s normal and what’s linked to autism.
“Autism Stimming” Versus Non-Autistic Stimming
Repetitive stimulatory behaviors, on their own, do not equate to an autism diagnosis. While it’s true an autism diagnosis is not made without the presence of these behaviors, they are one in a constellation of symptoms that need to be present for a diagnosis to be made. Autism is also defined by deficits in social communication.
That said, stimming related to autism does seem to have unique characteristics. For one, the repetitive behaviors appear to persist past the time they are developmentally appropriate. As neurotypical children get older, they develop new ways of learning and grow out of repetitive behaviors. The same is true for an insistence on sameness. As a child grows they find different ways of expressing autonomy.
“Where it’s different in autism is that it doesn’t seem to subside naturally on it’s own,” Bishop says. “When they really become cause for concern is when you see the behaviors interfering with someone’s ability to have age-appropriate social interactions.”
What to Do If You’re Worried
Bishop notes that any parents who are concerned that their children could be displaying symptoms of autism should bring the issue to their pediatrician right away. And more than that they should persist if they are not feeling heard. Their insight is valuable and crucial to diagnosis.
That said, stimming behaviors aren’t necessarily cause for deep worry. Even for people affected by autism, stimming behaviors tend to decrease with age. Until then, if the behavior is socially disruptive, parents should take a breath.
“There’s no reason to panic,” Bishop says. “What we want to figure out is if the behaviors are related to autism, and then try being sensitive to what the behaviors are providing a child. You can even integrate their interests into other activities.”
With early intervention and some patience, stimming behaviors can become less disruptive. So while they are important to watch out for, they are certainly nothing to stress over.