What You Need to Know About “Stimming”

What Exactly IS Stimming?

An easy way to understand stimming is as an action that people use in order to either make themselves have more energy or to calm down. The more accurate explanation is that the connections in our brain work best when we are able to organize the information sent from our environment in an efficient manner. We receive this information through our senses; vision, smell, taste, touch, proprioception (body awareness), and vestibular (head position and movement awareness). Stimming is a subconscious way for us to seek organization of the information we are receiving from our environment. 

Myths About Stimming

Just because a child is stimming (even the stereotypical hand flapping) when he/she is excited or overwhelmed does not necessarily mean that a child has Autism, ADHD, or another diagnosis commonly associated with stimming. Frequent or excessive stimming is a concern for some parents and doctors because it may indicate that the pathways for messages to, from, and in the brain are not set up as efficiently as they could be.

Stimming behavior can’t be attributed to a specific item or action. If a child is learning a new skill with a new item, such as a speech device, this action of learning may increase stimming, but the device is not to blame; the child’s need to calm and organize the new and difficult information is the cause. Sometimes not having a way of communicating and/or an inability to control his/her own environment can bring about more stimming, due to frustration.

What Causes Stimming?

The direct cause of stimming or what a child is seeking through stimming can be different depending on what they are doing at the time.  For example, a child who is tired and begins jumping and using verbal stimming (non-functional sounds/words) may be trying to make their brain run faster to keep up with the information in their environment. A child who crashes and stomps or hits themselves may be attempting to calm his/herself or slow down the information being sent and received in their brain to the point they can deal with it and process it better. 

What Can Be Done About Stimming?

There are ways to redirect stimming by providing sensory input based on what the needs of the child are at the time. To find out what a child is seeking through stimming an Occupational Therapist looks at the antecedent (i.e., what led to increased stimming). For example, if a child is stimming mainly when he/she is tired or when he/she is doing a difficult task there are different sensory strategies that can be used at those times, along with teaching the child how to describe what he/she is feeling and what he/she needs.  Sensory strategies can be done in a functional safe way to help the child cope better with the information he/she is trying to process.

It’s important to note that screen time (i.e., TV or video games) is not recommended for children who stim frequently because screen time increases the rate in which neurons fire in the brain. If a child is already having trouble organizing information from his/her environment, then having the neurons fire that information faster will make the organization of information even more difficult. 

For specific sensory strategies which can be used with your child, consider asking your occupational therapist about either techniques or a sensory diet to be used throughout the day.

Carolyn Miller, MSOT, OTR/L

Photo by Sarah Pflug from Burst
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