Foot-Tapping and Hand-Flapping: Why Do People Stim?

Close-up of a child biting their nail.Self-stimulatory behavior, better known as stimming, is a type of sensation-seeking that can ease feelings of anxiety, frustration, and boredom. Some people find stimming pleasurable and fun. Although stimming is commonly associated with autism, almost everyone stims from time to time. Stimming is especially prevalent among children.

Subtle forms of stimming, such as hair-twisting, may go unnoticed. More dramatic forms of stimming, such as face-slapping, may be alarming to witness. Forms of stimming that cause physical damage may qualify as self-injurious behavior (SIB).

What Is Stimming?

Stimming refers to a wide range of repetitive sensation-seeking behaviors. Some examples include:

  • Verbal stimming, such as repeating a phrase or humming seemingly at random.
  • Head-banging and face-slapping.
  • Nail-biting and thumb-sucking.
  • Repeatedly covering and then uncovering the ears, eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • Repetitive movements such as twirling or pacing.
  • Banging on objects.
  • Staring at stimulating objects.
  • Turning lights or radios on and off.
  • Scratching or rubbing skin.
  • Twisting hair.
  • Chewing on objects.
  • Tapping feet, fingers, or other body parts.

Stimming exists on a continuum. Most people stim at least some of the time. For example, chewing on a pencil while in deep concentration is a form of stimming. Stimming does not necessarily mean a person has autism, ADHD, or another neurological difference. Yet frequent or extreme stimming such as head-banging more commonly occurs with neurological and developmental differences.

Why Do People Stim?

Stimming helps people cope with emotions such as frustration and boredom. It may also help them concentrate, especially on challenging or boring tasks. Over time, stimming can become a habit. A person might come to associate biting their nails or chewing their hair with deep concentration, making it more difficult to concentrate without these stimming behaviors.

Autistic people often feel overwhelmed by sensory input such as flickering lights or loud noises. Stimming can help them recover a sense of control, calming them and making sensory distraction easier to manage. Stimming is often a sign that an autistic person is overwhelmed and struggling to cope with their emotions.

Stimming can also be pleasurable, especially when people associate stimming with relaxation or concentration.

Do Allistic People Stim?

Many forms of fidgeting, such as twisting hair or tapping fingers, are also a type of stimming. These forms of stimming are so common that they often go unnoticed.

Toddlers and preschoolers may also stim to cope with overwhelming emotions and having little control over their own lives. Some parents worry this stimming behavior is an early warning sign of autism, but when stimming is the only symptom, autism is unlikely. According to United Cerebral Palsy, about 20% of neurotypical toddlers bang their heads.

Neurotypical people stim for the same reasons that autistic people do—to cope with boredom, alleviate feelings of sensory overload, manage frustration and anxiety, and because stimming can become a pleasurable habit. Fidget spinners, a recent toy fad, are a stimming tool popular among both neurotypical and neurodivergent children.

Why Punishment for Stimming Behaviors Can Be Harmful

In generations past, some experts recommended punishing stimming behavior—either with aversive correctives (such as slaps, spanks, or shocks) or by taking away or withholding rewards.

The autistic self-advocacy community strongly opposes any type of punishment for stimming. Many adult autistics say punishment caused lasting harm to their self-esteem, undermined their sense of bodily autonomy, and left them with feelings of trauma. Just as adults are permitted to touch their faces or twirl their hair, autistic advocates emphasize that children should be able to stim—especially when doing so is not harmful.

Instead of punishing stimming, it’s important to examine and address the underlying cause.Stimming happens for a reason. Punishing the symptom does not address the underlying cause. Instead, it penalizes a person for their attempts to manage their own emotions. This can make emotions such as anger and anxiety feel more out of control. It also erodes trust between a caregiver and child. Over time, punishing stimming may even make the issue worse by triggering anxiety and fear.

Instead of punishing stimming, it’s important to examine and address the underlying cause. For example, an autistic child might need a quiet space to do homework, or they might find certain fabrics irritating. A toddler might need help coping with the stress of waiting for a meal. A person feeling overwhelming anxiety might need support to develop new anxiety management strategies.

When stimming is not physically harmful, there is rarely a reason to stop it. Often stimming is merely embarrassing to the caregiver and not something that puts a person in real danger. When a person engages in aggressive or violent stimming behavior, redirecting their attention may help.

How Therapy Can Help Manage Stimming Behaviors

Therapy can help families and individuals manage stimming behaviors, especially when those stimming behaviors seem dangerous or interfere with daily life.

Family therapy can help families to:

  • Address and manage overwhelming sensory environments.
  • Develop strategies for managing the emotions and sensations that trigger stimming.
  • Address conflicts between caregivers about how best to manage stimming.
  • Determine whether a person is stimming because of an underlying neurological or mental health issue.
  • Help caregivers differentiate age-typical stimming from stimming that may signal a problem.

Individual therapy can help children and adults who engage in stimming find healthy outlets for their emotions. A therapist may:

  • Help a person manage harmful stimming behavior such as head-banging.
  • Offer different strategies, such as meditation, for managing anxiety.
  • Help a person talk to loved ones about stress and frustration.
  • Offer alternative stimming options that may be less disruptive or harmful.
  • Help an autistic person better control their sensory environment by identifying and addressing triggers for stimming.
  • Support a person in advocating for their needs, including disability accommodations, at work or school.

A compassionate therapist can help with stimming and the emotions that trigger it. Find a counselor today!

References:

  1. Bennie, M. (2016, February 22). Stimming: The good and bad side of anxious behaviors. Retrieved from https://autismawarenesscentre.com/stimming-the-good-and-bad-of-anxious-behaviours
  2. Living with children: Head-banging [PDF]. (n.d.). United Cerebral Palsy. Retrieved from http://ucphuntsville.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Head-Banging.pdf
  3. Perry, D. M. (2018, November 27). The art of stimming. Retrieved from https://psmag.com/education/the-art-of-stimming
  4. Wang, K. (n.d.). Autism and stimming. Retrieved from https://childmind.org/article/autism-and-stimming
  5. What is stimming? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.appliedbehavioranalysisedu.org/what-is-stimming

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  • Anne-Marie

    Anne-Marie

    April 27th, 2019 at 6:55 AM

    Very good article. I wish we could use people first language when referring to children and adults who have autism. For example, when we see a person who is in a wheelchair we don ‘t say, “most paralyzed people …”. When referring to someone who has autism it is more appropriate to say, “a child with autism”, ” a person with autism” instead of labelling them or defining them with their diagnosis first.

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