Stims

What is a stim?
SIMPLIFIED EXPLANATION

Stims are behaviors that help us to calm down or concentrate. They can take many forms, such as moving in a specific way, looking at a fascinating object, or listening to a soothing sound. Autistic people sometimes use less usual stims such as clapping their hands or twirling an object very close to their eyes, but the non-autistic population also uses stims, such as chewing gum. Stims are useful and it's okay to use them as long as they remain appropriate, non-harmful and safe. For example, an intimate stim should be done in private, and a noisy stim should not disturb others. Ideally, you should also have access to stims that can be used in any context.

Stims or self-stimulation comprise a broad category of behaviors that help us to calm down or concentrate. These behaviors range from moving our hands rapidly (flapping), to listening to a song on a loop, to lining up objects, to chewing gum. But why do stims calm us? We are aware of ourselves and the world around us because our brain receives information from the body. The brain has to interpret this information to make sense of it. The brain also communicates with the body. That’s why we’re able to move. Stims allow the body and brain to have a moment of dialogue.

Why do we stimulate?

Stims to ward off boredom

Sometimes, the brain may feel that the world around it is rather boring. At other times, the body sends interesting information to the brain, but the information seems boring to the brain. At such times, stims can enable the brain to receive information it finds interesting. For example, if a person is bored and starts playing with their hair, they will feel the sensation of their hair on their fingers, they will see the change in their hairstyle and this will make the moment more interesting. This type of stimulus can be experienced by autistic and ADHD people, and sometimes by neurotypical people too. Everyone has started something because they were bored. It’s a good time to explore stims that can be reassuring later when needed.

Stims to soothe

Sometimes the brain receives too much information from the body. It then becomes increasingly difficult for the brain to make sense of the information it receives. This happens more often with autistic people. Autistic people who receive too much information from their body and environment can find it difficult to function and carry on with their activities. In fact, when there’s a lot of information being sent from the body, the brains of autistic people can interpret a sensation that doesn’t hurt the body as unpleasant and painful. There is then a difference between the information the body has sent to the brain and the sensation perceived by the person. At such moments, it’s important for autistic people to have a dialogue with their body. Stims are a tool for dialogue, enabling the brain to interpret sensations more accurately.

In fact, it’s as if sometimes the brain of an autistic person needs to spend some time alone with his or her body, without worrying about the rest of the environment. In these moments, the autistic person will intuitively seek out sensations that feel good. The autistic person will concentrate on these sensations, and on nothing else. In these moments, the autistic person may not respond to his or her name. It’s also a moment of recreation for the brain. The autistic person’s brain simply enjoys the sensation it has chosen to have. For example, an autistic person may choose to stroke their favorite doggie. In this example, the brain will be very connected to the body. The brain will direct the body and the movements exerted on the doggie, and in exchange, the body will send the brain information linked to the doggie, such as the softness of the fur, its smell, its appearance and so on. As the brain already knows this information, it becomes reassuring. As the brain has connected with the body, once the stim is over, the person will be ready to interpret the information coming from the body about the environment.

Note

In moments of stress, or when there is a lot of novelty, the stims known by the autistic person can be essential to his or her well-being. It is therefore important to provide safe stims. New stims can be tried out in quiet moments or when bored.

Stim for concentration

Sometimes, the brain receives a lot of information from the body, and is able to interpret it without having to disconnect from the environment. But to properly interpret the information, the autistic brain may have to use stims. In fact, autistic brains can use stims to compare new information with information they already know. For example, some autistic people might want to bring their pillows, plushies and blankets to sleep in a hotel even as adults. Stroking a familiar stuffed toy that smells the same as the person’s can help to better interpret different hotel sensations such as sounds, smells, mattress texture and so on.

 

Stims can also help with concentration. For example, during an exam, an autistic person might feel the need to rock, i.e. sway back and forth. It’s a way of concentrating and sorting out one’s thoughts by staying connected to oneself and one’s body. Autistic people may also feel the need to echolalia, i.e. to repeat words or sounds while carrying out activities of daily living such as cooking or dressing.

 

Safe stim

There are stims for all tastes and senses: sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste, balance, hot and cold, pressure, and so on. Most stims are safe, i.e. they can be performed without harming our bodies, the bodies of others, or breaking important objects. However, some stims can hurt us and others. Some people may want to stim with painful sensations. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, in all circumstances, it’s important to find stims that don’t hurt the body.

 

Stims that can injure the body can be replaced by stims that do not injure the body, but give similar sensations. For example, some autistic people may bite parts of their bodies. This action can cause injuries that last a long time. It is possible to bite into an object specially designed to be chewed. They come in all shapes and colors, for all ages and jaw strengths. If the sensation of pressure is what you’re after, you can use pliers. Be careful, however, to choose tongs that won’t cause injury. Other stims that can cause pain and remain safe include scratching hard, pinching or using ice cubes. It is possible to meet with a specialized educator to adapt dangerous stims and make them safe.

Stims in public

Stims are excellent tools. However, not all stims can be used in all circumstances. Remember that in a public or shared space, many people may have different sensory needs. For example, one person might need a noisy stim to concentrate in class (e.g. opening and closing a pen to hear the click) while another in the class needs silence. One person’s stims must not disturb the others. So it’s important to think of stims that won’t disturb. A specialized educator can help find solutions. You can also look to other autistic people for inspiration.

Warning

Adapting stims does not mean stopping stims. Stims are important tools for autistic people. Being different doesn't mean being disruptive.

Intimate stims

Some autistic people have stims that involve nudity or touching their breasts or genitals. There’s nothing wrong with these kinds of stims. Some autistic people will see them as part of their sexuality. Others will see it as two separate things. In any case, these are actions that can only be done privately. It is not acceptable to perform stims involving nudity and the touching of breasts and genitals in public places such as schools, shopping malls and parks. It is possible to perform these stims alone, in a private place such as one’s bedroom or bathroom when the door and curtains are closed.

Stim accessibility

As autistic people often need to use their stims throughout the day, it’s best to find stims that are practical in many circumstances. Some stims require no special equipment, such as moving the hands, rocking the body or braiding the hair. Others require the use of objects. It’s possible to find objects specially designed for stims that reproduce sensations that are generally appreciated. Or you may simply have a spontaneous attraction to an object that makes you feel good.

How to choose the right stimulation object to carry with you:

List of stims

Stims can take many forms. It can be useful to have a variety in the choice of stims, so it will be easier to adapt to the context.

Movement-related stims

Visual Stims

My artistic project was to photograph autistic children. A young girl, in a crowded gymnasium, would regularly take a few seconds to observe the neon lights. When she did so, she would take a deep breath, which seemed to soothe her. She seemed to feel so good. I called this work Breathing Light. Photos from the exhibition Linking Worlds One Color at a Time can be viewed here.

Respirer la lumière

Oral stims

Auditory and vocal stims

Stims using fidget objects

Olfactory stims

Tactile stims

Painful stims

Catherine Bouchard-Tremblay

Science popularizer