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, or fidgeting 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!


  1. Bennie, M. (2016, February 22). Stimming: The good and bad side of anxious behaviors. Retrieved from
  2. Living with children: Head-banging [PDF]. (n.d.). United Cerebral Palsy. Retrieved from
  3. Perry, D. M. (2018, November 27). The art of stimming. Retrieved from
  4. Wang, K. (n.d.). Autism and stimming. Retrieved from
  5. What is stimming? (n.d.). Retrieved from

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • 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.

  • Lauren

    September 3rd, 2020 at 5:59 PM

    You make a good point about not reducing individuals to diagnostic labels. However, autism seems to be an exception to the rule of person-first language, as members of the autism community and advocates of the modern neurodiversity movement have stated on many occasions that by and large, they actually prefer the label “autistic” over “person with autism.” To the autism community, being autistic is an important part of one’s identity that influences much of who they are as a person, and thus something to take pride in; by contrast, the label “person with autism” is perceived as more clinicalized and stigmatizing, reducing autism to a flaw or deficiency that needs to be fixed.

  • Gen

    September 15th, 2020 at 9:28 AM

    I’m not against stimming or fidgeting but i’m a hundred percent against labels cause i do think labels hurt us more, with the media, the grammatical corruption, and people loosing themselves. I do think labels should have gone away if we just stop labeling ourselves and others.

  • Relky

    May 2nd, 2021 at 10:30 PM

    This play on words, or emphasis I should say, represents dangerous territory. A word is not a label. It doesn’t automatically represent a negative connotation. I don’t think children are born knowing what does or does constitute a negative label or insult. We tell them these words are meant to hurt them or make them feel bad. The author clearly does not feel negatively towards autistic children so why bring this up? It’s more pathological to uncut her article by focus on critiquing her grammar and redefining phrases to mean what you see instead of how she meant them. I am sure you both can see the flaw in this. I don’t believe either of you think she is a source of stigma towards the mentally ill by perpetuating the labeling of children with autism by calling them “autistic children” This attack on grammar as a source of negativity is misplaced. It been a problem in academia for so many years and it’s spilled over into society. It’s not a critique or helpful to redefine the meaning of words and phrases to suite your needs. You don’t get to tell someone what they meant by the use of a word or phrase. It’s not even ambiguous and the meaning of an word or phrase is defined by the author. How you feel about what she said reflects more on you than the

  • Jaded

    June 4th, 2021 at 4:37 AM

    Relky, I so agree with all you have said. I thought this article was very informative. I had to go back and reread to try to see labels…there were none. Everyone seems to want to make everything to politically correct to a point it creates confusion. Seems these days people look to be offended. I have a friend that fidgets all the time.. that is what brought me here…

  • Anne-Marie

    June 5th, 2021 at 10:07 AM

    As a mental health therapist and as a mother of an adult son with autism, I find it is best to ask someone how they wish to be addressed. After further reading on People First Language, I have gained new insight on the subject. Indeed, some communities and individuals do prefer to be referred by their diagnosis first. Some do not. It’s best not to make the assumption that all people want to referred to as their diagnosis, as well as some people do want to be referred by their condition first. It’s a matter of individual choice.

  • Christian

    June 23rd, 2021 at 9:57 AM

    Excellent article and comments as well. I would like to know a bit about Zawn’s background. Clearly, the author is exceptionally knowledgeable about the subject and an excellent writer. Thank you!

  • Lisa

    September 8th, 2021 at 10:48 PM

    Many neurotypical adults stim by rubbing their forefinger on the cuticle of their thumb in a repetitive motion, sometimes even cutting the skin and causing it to bleed. I am neurotypical but find that type of neurotypical stimming quite distracting and even upsetting; to use slang (which probably isn’t helpful), it gets on my last nerve and irritates me no end, and I get fidgety, even tho’ usually I am quite sedentary. Has anyone else ever heard of this type of neurotypical stimming? And why do people do that?

  • Nan

    May 2nd, 2022 at 2:32 AM

    I can see both sides of what others have said regarding the titling/address of those with Asperger’s, though I am siding more with Relky on this one—firstly because I feel it’s unrealistic to task the author with accommodating all readers’ preferences; everyone is different and it’s impossible for them to know who may or may not be offended by certain terminology. As someone with ADD and recently-diagnosed comorbism with Asperger’s, I agree it is painful to come to terms with the diagnosis in and of itself, let alone all of the stigma that comes with it. However, I’m assuming I/we all arrived at this article specifically in order to learn more about the “disorder,” and it’s not as if the author has a choice over what to call it—not to mention how hard it wouid have been to find the information we’d been seeking.

    On the other hand, with respect to/no offense toward Mr. Asperger, haha, but I do wish there was something “prettier” or “cooler” sounding to identify with instead, and/or at the very least there was enough advocacy and education for “neurodivergency” so as to do away with stigma in the first place. Unfortunately, I think we’ve a long way to go before any of that catches on.

  • Josua

    May 7th, 2022 at 9:37 AM

    as an autistic person stimming feels really good, like its not just a stress/anxiety thing. like i dont stim around others (except for the more “socially acceptable” ones) because i mask, but when im by myself i stim much more. so yeah, not just kids stim but also adults =)

  • Yvette

    June 5th, 2022 at 7:17 PM

    I’m here to learn and try to get help. My 16 year old is been jumping for years all day long while watching tv. Before jumping, he chewed his clothes, to anything he could put in his mouth. He isn’t social and doesn’t have friends. Where do I go to see if he’s autistic. He is a adoptive child with cocaine exposure in womb.

  • Charlotte

    June 8th, 2022 at 1:39 PM

    Dear Yvette, that certainly does sound challenging. I can understand how talking to someone might be helpful. To find a therapist with experience with autism, please enter your city or ZIP code into the search field on this page: You can filter your search on the left side of the screen, under Common Specialties select All Other Issues and the drop-down menu is where you will see Autism if there are any professionals in your search area that work with that diagnosis. You may click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. Please reach out directly if you need help finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Mountain Time, and our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext 3. Kind regards, The GoodTherapy Team

  • LISA

    September 15th, 2022 at 10:24 PM

    my Husband has started tapping his foot, and slapping his leg at night, i am a care giver
    so didn’t think this was normal so with some research i see its stress. probably, his new job. thanks

  • reyhan

    August 2nd, 2023 at 4:30 AM

    thanks a lot of information good job.

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