But not every body needs to stim to self-soothe and regulate their nervous system.
Swaying from side to side helps me think when I’m typing or talking to someone. As a kid I was always told to stop doing this because it was “annoying” for people to look at. As a result I think I’ve turned my stims into more “acceptable” behaviors that don’t make anyone uncomfortable.
I have “cute dances” that I do when I get excited about stuff or when food tastes really good, I wiggle my toes a lot which nobody really notices, and I bite my lips, tap my fingers, or bounce my legs almost constantly. I cannot fall asleep without rubbing the top of my foot rhythmically across my sheets.
Lately I’ve tried flapping my hands and it feels really good when I'm anxious, but I was never allowed to do it and I was always really self-conscious about being socially accepted, so I repressed a lot of things.
I think because autistic people stim in more obvious ways that neurotypicals find disruptive, it has always just been attributed to autism, but everyone with a sensitive nervous system benefits from it.
You Stim, I Stim, We All Stim
If you have ever bounced your leg, played with your hair, or paced back and forth while on the phone, you have stimmed!
But you probably didn’t notice, because these kinds of stims are “socially acceptable” and nobody asked you to stop.
Autistic people stim bigger. Flapping hands, rocking back and forth, swaying side to side, vocalizing, spinning, and dancing are all common stims.
These behaviors are often described as calming. They are ways of releasing overwhelming emotions and sensations, and regaining a sense of control.
There is a long and dark history of research trying to stop stimming. Doctors have used electric shock, abusive “therapies” like ABA, and drugs to force “quiet hands”.
If you type ‘Autism and self-stimulatory behaviors’ into Google Scholar, you will get a whole lot of studies about controlling stims, but very few about understanding them.
An Ethical Study on Stims
The first peer-reviewed study on stimming to actually ask autistic people about their experiences (a practice called 'participatory research') was published in 2019.
Participants reported that stims are “automatic and uncontrollable” and that repressing stims makes them feel “more on edge” and less able to concentrate.
Here’s how one participant in the study described the reason they stim:
“It helps you talk to yourself at a rhythmical pace, so when I’m doing this I can sort of think in the rhythm that I’m moving my hand...which is very helpful because it means like when you’ve got your internal monologue it doesn’t all come in at once and you find yourself sort of shouting at yourself in your head to get everything done.”
“I started kind of incorporating it more in my life, and it actually managed to help me stave off some panic attacks. For example, I never used to wave my hands that much, but I’ve started doing it more and it actually helps, like if I’m in a crowded elevator or something.”
The study clarified that "participants professed no desire for self-injurious stims and largely wished to avoid stimming in ways harmful to others.”
They agreed that stims should only be a target of treatment when they cause injury, and that this treatment must be consensual.
The most harmful thing they reported about stimming was the social judgement and stigma they experienced.
If you’re sitting there and you’re like, I relate to this, but I’m not autistic, I have ADHD. People with ADHD stim too! It just hasn’t been studied, as far as I can tell, or it’s referred to as ‘fidgeting’ instead, because the behaviors may be less “disruptive”. But you are valid! Stim your ADHD heart out!
If you see someone stimming and you think it’s weird, please remember, it’s making them feel good, and helping them cope with life.
So mind your business!
Let them stim in peace.
A version of this essay was originally published as an Instagram post on July 20, 2020.