To Stim, or Not To Stim; THAT is the Question......

To be or not to be? No, actually a very popular question I get asked is: "To stim, or not to stim??"

Sterotypy, aka "stimming" (see my Glossary for an explanation why the term "self-stimulatory behavior" is misleading), can take many forms and can be quite frustrating to parents and caregivers.  These repetitive behaviors can be very enjoyable and automatically reinforcing to the individual doing them, but at times can prevent learning, social interactions, or can cause social stigma.

From a teaching perspective, when children engage in sterotypy they can also completely shut out the outside world and may not respond to demands, requests for eye contact, or even touch. Some of my clients will engage in loud vocal sterotypy so they literally cant even hear my demands while they sing, yell, or make prolonged vocalizations ("AHHHHHHH - HHHHHHHH!").
I often will say to myself "Oh, you just went on vacation didn't you?" when one of my clients starts engaging in repetitive behaviors and trying to tune me out.

Not all individuals on the ASD spectrum have repetitive behavior to the degree that it interferes with learning. However, many do.
 If your child is engaging in sterotypy during social or instructional times these behaviors can be very persistent, and difficult to decrease. Some examples of these types of behaviors can include:

  • Rocking, spinning, hand flapping, mouthing items/objects, lining items up, spinning items, dropping items to watch them fall, verbal stims such as squeals, shrieks, or scripting scenes from favorite TV shows, visual stims such as staring closely at objects or flicking eyelashes, saliva play, tearing or ripping paper into tiny pieces

Many parents feel they don't want their child to "stim" at all. Other parents feel they want their child to know when to engage in sterotypy and when not to, and for some of the families I consult with this isn't even an issue (they do not want sterotypy reduced).

Just imagine that your way of de-stressing after a long day is to have a warm bath and listen to music and everyday a therapist stops you right as you go to turn on the bathtub faucet and says "No. Hands Down". How would you react to that??

I don't recommend simply removing a behavior. You must remember, there is a function (need) involved. It would be better to teach a replacement behavior that is less disruptive and does not prevent learning/social interaction. To put it simply, teach the child what TO do instead of just focusing on what you DON'T want them to do. Consider redirection, Differential Reinforcement, or teaching toy play/hobbies.

Yes, I understand sterotypy can be very trying on a parent and also difficult to handle in public.
A large step towards viewing "stims" as commonplace and not an annoying habit to extinguish is to realize that everybody engages in repetitive behaviors! Really, they do. The next time you are standing in line at the bank, or waiting at a stoplight, look at the people around you. Do you see someone twirling their hair? (I do that one). Do you see someone tapping their foot? What about humming to themselves? So if you and I engage in repetitive behaviors at times, then what is the difference between that and your child engaging in repetitive behavior? Well usually, it is the frequency/intensity (especially if the behavior causes harm), and the inability to interact/learn/engage in any other activity while the sterotypy is occurring. THAT is the difference.

*UPDATE: After reading this post, a very sweet young lady contacted me to share her opinion. Her name is Tracy, and she has ASD.  I think her words really put some perspective to this issue:

"I enjoyed your post on stimming. I like so much how you tell how everyone does it, and the analogy of a neurotypical person not being allowed a hot bath at the end of the day. Not being allowed to stim would sometimes be very much like this. Other times, it would be more like not being allowed to smile when I am happy. It's interesting to hear a neurotypical perspective: when we stim you feel we're in our own world. This is sometimes true....sometimes stimming helps me concentrate. Actually, stimming almost always helps me concentrate, just not always on the thing I am supposed to be concentrating on! :) When I spin around and flap, though, I don't feel like I'm in my own world. I feel like the I am surrounded by the world, held by the world, and my hands are moved up and down by what is the rhythm, the essence of the world. I stim to get the magical feeling of connection you might feel in the redwoods. True, this does sometimes require less being-with-people, but the world is just so magical and so wonderful and whole that- I don't know. As a spur of the moment choice, and as a conscious choice, I think my limited time is better spent spinning than small-talking. Stimming is also catharsis. You're right, it can be used when bored...... and it is a wonderful way to order the world in the midst of sensory overload."


  1. I am waiting to be interviewed for an ABA therapist position and your posts are so helpful and informative. I feel I will go into my interview more confident!

    1. Well thank you, and good luck on your interview!

  2. Eloquently stated!
    go aba!

  3. I am working with a wonderful 14-year-old boy, whose main communication method is his "talker", and who demonstrates very loud verbal stimming, both when enjoying highly preferred activities (such as watching videos on his iPad), and when the contextual situation seems to be increasing his anxiety (such as being asked to climb down from a high climbing structure, when he was unsure how to proceed downwards). He also loudly vocal stims, in a seemingly non-communicative, matter of fact kind of way, while going about mundane tasks or activities. His family is having a hard time being in public together, (regardless of whether the activity takes place somewhere pleasant to the boy, such as the park, or another outdoor location) because Dad gets extremely stressed/uncomfortable when all the people, wherever they are, are looking/directing their attention. This may be related to the boy's grandparents (both sets) being very traditional, from an Asian culture where so much attention from strangers is extremely stressful and uncomfortable, to an adult who has grown up in that culture. I really want to help, respectfully and sustainably. I was thinking to suggest to the boy's mom, a product like the Mute-Mic, the use of which could be positively reinforced with a small amount of preferred food item. I definitely don't want to silence or constrain this truly delightful guy, but I also need to really get creative, to help for his family's need to be able to go on some family outtings together, and to experience some periods of reduced sound, at the family home, to also be met. I would REALLY welcome any and all specific, actionable suggestions, especially from those who are also on the spectrum. For the record, if it matters, both my 5YO daughter and I are proud Aspies. Thanks in advance, everyone!

    1. Thanks for your comment,

      I think its awesome that your main concern is not reducing this behavior, but questioning IF this behavior should be reduced. That is great! I think ethically, it is important to first evaluate WHY a behavior needs to receive intervention. Is it disruptive? Is it harmful? Is it keeping the individual in heavily restricted environments? These are all critical questions to ask.

      If the treatment team does decide to intervene on this behavior, then you first need to identify the function. You do not mention a function, but many people assume stereotypy is automatically maintained. However that is not always the case, the function can sometimes be complex.
      Once you have a function that will then lead you straight into intervention. Most of the time when people ask me "what do I do about this behavior?", that is often an indicator that the function is not known. If the function is known, then it leads you straight to the intervention.

      Lastly, you do not mention if there is a BCBA on the case or if you are the BCBA? It will be important to have a BCBA create the behavior plan, and train the family on it.
      Good luck to you :-)


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