Is self-stimulatory behavior common in people with autism?

Chantal Sicile-Kira
Mental Retardation & Developmental Disabilities
Self-stimulatory behavior is common in many individuals with developmental disabilities; however, it appears to be more common in those with autism. In fact, if a person with another type of developmental disability shows a form of self-stimulatory behavior, often that person is also labeled as having autistic characteristics.
William Stillman
Health Education

Yes, repetitive or perseverative actions, activities and vocalizations are one of the characteristics by which classic autism is diagnosed. Often labeled as obsessive-compulsive disorder, such "behaviors" are usually described with slang such as "stims" "stimmies." In other words, such actions are commonly perceived as mindless, purposeless or having no value; and have given rise to the stereotype of the child with autism being "in his own little world."

As a person on the autism spectrum myself, I can tell you that the preceding stereotypes are myths. "Stimming" has a very real purpose; it is a strength; and it is a coping mechanism and survival tactic. More often than not, it is deliberately employed by those individuals who are doing their very best to "behave" or stay in control by creating a focal point they control in order to block out something---or even someone---that is assaulting their highly-sensitive sensory/nervous system! (You do it too when you catch yourself shaking a leg, playing with a piece of jewelry, or tapping your pen!)

Lessening anxiety about what's coming next (schedules are a must!), assessing your child's sensory issues (to better identify triggers in your community), and assisting him to feel safe and comfortable in meaningful relationships with others that presume his intellect will go far in decreasing the need to "stim." In fact, better and more respectful descriptors from now on may well be to call stimming self-soothing or self-regulating techniques! 

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.