“Oh, he’s just stimming.”

Stimming: Everybody’s doin’ it.

Even you.

I have a confession.  I stim.  Every night.  It calms me.

Before I go to bed, I count off on my fingers how many hours of sleep I will get.  Sometimes, I have to count half a dozen times just to get that sense of peace.

Sound odd?  Maybe a little.  I remember doing this as early as third grade.  I have no idea why I have to do it, just that I have to.

I don’t just stim before bed.  During the day, I find myself chewing on pencil caps, pulling apart paper clips, tapping my foot, organizing items on my desk into straight, perfect lines, all with little to no awareness I’m doing it.

You’ve probably figured out by now what “stimming” is if you didn’t already know.  Short for “self-stimulation,” it’s a type of repetitive movement we do, often to ease tension or anxiety.  Often, it’s subconsciously done.  I’ve discovered the term to be co-existent with neurological disorders such as autism, though it’s certainly not exclusive.  I’ve never been diagnosed with autism, but I certainly can appreciate, and practice, some of its attributes.

For my soon-to-be four year-old son who has high-functioning autism, his stimming is often a survival tactic.  If he can’t do it, he “explodes,” if you will.  I’ve watched him “stim” for years without realizing it had a name and a function.  With his recent diagnosis of ASD, I have been thrown into a world of jargon and acronyms, stimming among them.  Thankfully, with this new vocabulary, I am becoming better equipped to understand and help him.

I’ll never forget a recent visit to the park with my husband, our two young boys, sister-in-law, her husband, and their two young children.  We were on a nature trail with a long, winding wooden fence.  Naturally, Big C (my son with ASD) ran his hand along the railing.  While I knew the possibility of splinters was imminent, I also knew there was no chance of stopping him.  Big C needed to touch that railing.  He needed to run his hand along its splintery edge to better understand his surroundings.  As a sensory-seeking child, he needs to touch his surroundings, to smell them, even lick them (often to his mother’s chagrin) all in order to understand them.

My sister-in-law, a bit perplexed by my son’s behavior, asked why Big C was slowly running his hand along the railing, head down, humming to himself.

My husband merely replied,  “Oh, he’s just stimming.”

The twinkle of pride in my husband’s eye – true understanding and trust between father and son – was simply magical.

While it may have a stigma to it, stimming really isn’t so bad.  In fact, it can be quite therapeutic.

How do you “stim”?

Note: this post is part of a blog hop. Click the link below to read more about what it’s like to have a sensory-special kid!


Published by Miranda Keskes

I am a freelance writer, editor, and tutor with fifteen years of high school teaching experience. Helping young adults craft their unique writer's voice is one of my passions. As the mother of a child with autism, I also feel compelled to share our story, connect with fellow parents, and raise awareness for a diagnosis that is still quite misunderstood. Learn more at my business site, KeskesInk.com, and my personal blog, MommyCatharsis.com.

22 thoughts on ““Oh, he’s just stimming.”

  1. I have stimmed since before I can remember. I tap my foot/leg and twirl pencils/pens when I’m working, often with no conscious understanding that I’m doing it until I catch myself. This frequently happens when I’m deep in thought, writing lesson plans or grading papers now that I’m an adult. I distinctly remember getting in trouble with my 3rd grade teacher for twirling my pencil. She had apparently asked me to stop (probably because she saw it as an instrument of eye poking), and without even thinking about it, I was doing it again as I was getting in my desk for some material she must have asked us to retrieve. She came up to me and yelled at me quite sternly to stop, especially because this was a subsequent offense. I was taken aback. I had no idea I had even been doing it. But I remember the moment vividly — not what preceded or followed the moment, but specifically the moment she lashed out at me. This was the moment when I associated the pencil twirling (what I now know of as stimming) with something bad I wasn’t supposed to be doing. As life moved along, I would feel wrong whenever I would catch myself doing it. But it’s just a means of focus for me. Other people have their unique means of focus, however subtle or obvious. I’m thankful as a teacher that I know what stimming is and can recognize it in my students. I only wish Ms. V had had some training on the matter all those decades ago.


  2. I didn’t know it was called that (which, as a teacher, I probably should have), but yeah, I definitely do it! Leg jiggling, foot tapping, sometimes picking or scratching my skin.


  3. I find myself rubbing my fingers or hands. Or putting hands in pockets and running my thumb up and down my fingers when I’m in stressful situations. My personal stim. 🙂


  4. Great post on stimming! Sadly, stimming often has a negative connotation, but you are so right to say that it can be calming, relaxing, and organizing. My son, like you, has to touch, smell, and lick everything. It’s his way of gathering that sensory input. I also agree with your comment above about how understanding your child’s needs is making you a better teacher. I feel the same way! I was even able to get my son’s private OT to come and do a staff development training for the teachers at my school, and many said it was the best professional development that they had ever had. When we view behaviors through a sensory lens, everything just makes so much more sense!


    1. That’s awesome your son’s OT was able to make such an impact. It’s so exciting when you find someone who really connects with your child (my son’s special needs preschool teacher is like that). I wish my son could take her with him as he progresses up the school ladder!

      Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂


  5. My son has been in a kind of holiday club this week. On the bus he was chatting to the mum of one of his new class mates, a boy who clearly had Down’ s Syndrome. This young man was stimming, repeatedly tapping his lip with a small stick. Mum had a stick too. My son asked her why she was carrying one and she explained it’s useful to have a spare to hand as her son can get upset if he’s without a stick. “But why are YOU tapping it?” he asked. “Err, because it feels nice” came the reply. I Don’t think she’d realised she was doing it until he’d asked!


  6. Thank you for sharing this. My 3 year old has recently been diagnosed with autism and I suspect my 9 year old is also on the spectrum. I had thought that stimming referred only to actions such as hand flapping or rocking. It is a revaluation to me the realise that stimming covers such a broad range of actions. They both stim and so do I!


    1. You’re welcome! My son was just recently diagnosed as well, so I’m learning all kinds of things I never thought I would. It’s fascinating to me what society deems as “acceptable” stimming, like gnawing on a pen cap (I do it: both disgusting and unsanitary) and what is “unacceptable” like hand flapping (totally sanitary and likely a way to burn a few calories).


  7. I tap/shake my foot…tap pencil/pen when I am writing. .. pop my knuckles. .. chew on pencils when I was a kid I would bite on my fingers the part around the nails but never the actual nail.


    1. Oh, I am notorious for chewing on pen caps. The really gross part is that I’m a teacher and find myself chewing on random pens my students leave behind! Jumping up and down like my son does seems like a better alternative! 🙂


  8. Oh and also to fall asleep I count. It’s usually repeating 1-5 but sometimes I go higher to maybe 30 but then I usually come back and repeat 1-5 until I fall asleep. It is something I started as an adult.. but ad a kid I went through phases of needing silence and needing music playing to sleep. I guess now it’s just harder to “turn off my brain” and counting makes me focus on the numbers and not think about eleventh hundred thousand other things.


  9. Well, I have autism so I guess I probably stim more than most people, but I run my fingers over my clothes or any textured surface that’s available, I used to draw lines and squiggles all over my notebooks and papers when I was in school, I tap just about anything, I used to make a guitar sound with those retractable key holder strings, I play with my nails and hands, I make clicking noises, and I play with my hair a lot. There’s probably more things, but those are the major ones.


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