What is a "stim" or stimulatory behavior in autism?

We have heard of “stims” or stimulatory behaviors in children with autism.  It is one of the signs doctors look for in making a diagnosis of autism.  Stereotypic or stimulatory behaviors include rocking, flapping, making noises, picking, rocking, or spinning.  In fact, we all have behaviors that are considered stimulatory.  What do you do when you are in a stressful situation to calm yourself down?  Some people twirl their hair, chew their fingernails, or tap their fingers on the table.  So, everyone has some behavior that is calming.  So, what is the difference between you and a person with autism?  The ability to determine the “social acceptability,” duration, and timing of the behavior is the key.  In a meeting when you are stressed it is not appropriate to flap your hands wildly, twirl around, or make clicking or humming noises.  You have learned that biting your fingernails or bouncing your leg is an acceptable way to deal with stress.  Chewing gum or ice is another acceptable way to self-soothe in public.

Most people with autism also have some form of sensory processing disorder.  This means that everyday noises, sights, smells, movements, and actions may cause a stress, fear, or un-expected reaction.  The noise of a dog bark may sound like nails on a chalkboard. So, that person may need to engage in a stimulatory behavior in order to calm himself down.  The “stim” is a way of soothing in a stressful situation, controlling negative emotions, or dealing with anxiety, anger or fear.  So, when someone is hyper(over) sensitive to everyday situations, sounds, sights, etc.  he needs to engage in more stimulatory behaviors to help calm himself down.  It’s like a cycle.

When do we “break” the cycle?  Personally, I think that our society makes rules that are difficult to follow.  Why is it more acceptable to chew on your fingernail than to flap your hands?  At what point is it no longer cute for a child to spin around in public?  Someone, somewhere is constantly judging your actions and it’s that mold that we have to fit into that causes more stress.  My older son makes noises with his mouth and flaps and tightens his hands in private only.  We have taught him that it is inappropriate to do so in public.  When he is stressed in a situation, he knows to go into a bathroom or away from eyesight of other people and stim until he’s calmed down.

This is much more difficult to teach children who have more severe forms of autism.  When they may rock and flap, they get the staredown from people.  I think this is sad.  With autism on the rise, maybe the ones who rock and flap will outnumber those who don’t!  Can you imagine????  Everyone else flapping around staring at YOU because you are the one standing still chewing your gum and biting your fingernails………….thoughts?

Thank you for traveling down the Route2Greatness with us!  www.route2greatness.com

By- Cara Koscinki MOT, OTR/L 

Author of The Pocket Occupational Therapist- a handbook for caregivers of children with special needs.  Questions and answers most frequently asked to OTs with easy to understand answers and fun activities you can do with your child.  Order anywhere books are sold.  www.pocketot.com 



  1. My 17 year old son was thrown out of The Shoe Carnival for rocking and flapping his arms while saying “hello” to people as they came in the store. The manager said “I have other customers to think of.” I wish that manager would read this.

  2. I think the mama (or papa) bear comes out of us when people don’t accept our kids. But I don’t know that it’s always fair to judge. We live by unwritten social codes for a reason–it helps us all know what we’re doing, what to expect and where we stand with others. Because deep down, just like our kids, we are all nervous people who crave stability. As human beings, when someone acts outside the norm of the behavior we expect, we experience alarm and discomfort. To calm our anxiety, we self-soothe. Some people do this by extricating themselves from the situation. Some people do this by patiently sticking around and trying to make sense of what they’re dealing with. And some immature, insecure people do this by “attacking” the “offender,” whether through mocking, blatant insensitivity, or outright cruelty.

    Kids with AS and autism don’t know the social codes. My son has AS. He talks to himself constantly, and he gets a lot of stares (he’s 11, it’s not cute anymore). Also, when he gets stressed, he clings to me, hugs me, kisses me and tells me he loves me–repeatedly–to the point that I cannot carry on a conversation or look at an item on a store shelf. We have trained him not to talk to himself so much in public, and we are working on the other stuff. Once, at his karate class, he was talking to himself and some of the kids were staring and pointing. The mama bear in me wanted to go squeeze them by their little faces. But as much as we might want to, we can’t fight all of these battles, and we can’t waste energy being angry with people who don’t understand. We also can’t expect or even imagine that the world will conform to our kids. I think we have to accept that it’s human nature for people to be uncomfortable with things they don’t understand. It’s our job to teach our kids as best as we can to fit in as well as they can, and give them a sense of self-worth apart from what the world sees. We also have to know that some people will be cruel to our kids, and we will have to step in to defend and protect. But most people want to do the right thing, and if we explain and educate them as individuals, they will adapt very well to our kids.

  3. Thanks for sharing my son doesn’t exhibit the typical hand flapping or rocking, he does cover his ears a lot and has to say”mom” 3times before he can ask his questions. We go in for an eval and the dr. Is going in with the mindset of just ruling it out. A puzzle piece is a perfect symbol as is there are so many pieces and each child is different. So thanks again for sharing.

Share your thoughts with us.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s