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What Is Stimming and When Is It a Significant Child Behavior?

Every child will engage in repetitive stimulating behaviors known as stimming — only a few will be autistic.

The term “stimming” is a shorthand used by the autism community to describe repetitive self-stimulatory behaviors such as hand-flapping or rocking. Although these behaviors are often used to diagnose neurodivergent conditions, they’re 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 typical developmental behavior. When trying to differentiate between the two, it helps to consider how disruptive the stimming behaviors are and how long they are persisting past their developmentally appropriate window.

What Is Stimming?

There are two broad groups of stimming behaviors, according to Somer Bishop, Ph.D., associate professor in psychiatry at University of California San Francisco. “The problem is that these behaviors are not specific to autism,” she says. “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.

Physical Stimming:

  • Repetitive sensorimotor behaviors:
    – Hand and object flapping
    – Spinning
  • 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 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 this is simply because they do not have the neurological connections to speak, point, or otherwise indicate what they want to express.

Autism Stimming Versus Non-Autistic Stimming

Repetitive stimulatory behaviors, on their own, do not equate to an autism diagnosis. Although it’s true an autism diagnosis is usually not made without the presence of these behaviors, they’re one in a constellation of symptoms that need to be present for a diagnosis to be made. Autism is also defined by differences 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 speak to their pediatrician right away. More than that, they should persist in bringing it up if they’re not feeling heard. Parents’ insight is valuable and crucial to diagnosis.

That said, stimming behaviors aren’t necessarily cause for deep worry. Even for autistic people, stimming tends to decrease with age. Until then, if the behavior isn’t socially disruptive, parents should take a breath. In fact, many autistic people say that stimming is useful and helps them self-soothe and express intense emotions.

“There’s no reason to panic,” Bishop says. “What we want to figure out is if the behaviors are related to autism.” With early intervention and some patience, stimming can become less disruptive. So although these behaviors are important to watch out for, they’re certainly nothing to stress over.