Stimming is an important part of most autistic people’s life, and as such, something you’ll probably want to include in your narrative to make your autistic character(s) more realistic. Which is why we’re now going to tell you all about it!
First of all, what is it? The word “stimming” is short for “self-stimulating”. Almost everyone uses it preferentially because it’s easier to use and sounds less… weird. It has a lot of derivations: the verb “to stim”, the noun “a stim”, the adjective “stimmy”… Isn’t the English language wonderful.
Self-stimulating, or stimming as I’ll call it for the rest of this masterpost (and of the blog), consists of doing something with the specific goal of stimulating one’s senses.
If you haven’t done it already, we advise you to read our masterpost about sensory differences, since we’ll refer to many concepts we have explained there in this post, and we won’t re-define them here.
that all of this is sorted, let’s get into the heart of the matter.
First I’ll explain what stimming looks like, and then I’ll try to
outline the main reasons why someone might stim.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of stims, sorted by the sense they stimulate. Every sense can be stimulated by stimming, except maybe the interoceptive ones. Your character stimming can look like:
moving their fingers in front of their eyes, pressing on their eyes
until geometric patterns appear, watching a screensaver for hours,
looking at things with pretty colors, looking at bright lights or
blinking lights, looking at glittery or shimmery things, sorting objects
by colors or shape, watching moving things such as a spinning top or a
- Hearing: Listening to music (for example
listening to the same song on repeat for hours), rubbing fingers/hair/
cloth next to their ears, tapping on their ears, eating crunchy food,
walking on dry autumn leaves, making noises, repeating a word or words
with a fun sonority, humming, singing, clicking a button repeatedly,
zipping and unzipping a sweater, listening to the sound of rain/waves,
opening and closing scissors…
- Smell: Sniffing things with a
pleasant smell, wearing perfume, smelling flowers, smelling a favorite
blanket/object/pet/person, making food, taking a walk after it’s rained,
sniffing dirty clothing…
- Taste: Eating things with a strong
taste (spicy/very sweet/sour/salty…), chewing gum, chewing non-edible
objects, kissing someone, licking stuff…
- Touch: Rubbing soft
fabric, rubbing things with pleasant textures, chewing on things,
rubbing their fingers together, touching/playing with their hair, biting
their nails, picking at their skin, sitting/lying under heavy things,
pressing themselves in tiny confined spaces, pressing parts of their
body, hitting themselves, playing with dough or baking, touching water,
walking on tiptoes, walking on textured ground, clenching their jaw…
eating ice-cream, drinking hot drinks, touching snow, touching a
radiator, staying under the AC, taking a very hot or very cold
shower/bath, eating ice cubes…
- Nociception : doing anything that
inflicts pain, this includes all self-harming stims (hitting, biting,
scratching themselves for instance)
- Kinesthesic sense: Flapping
their hands, twirling their fingers, playing with fidget toys, bouncing
on their toes, playing sports, knitting, doodling, pacing, tapping their
fingers, chewing, bouncing their leg, twisting their hands and fingers,
playing an instrument…
- Vestibular sense: rocking, spinning around, riding a roller coaster, sailing, horse riding, being upside down, doing cartwheels, shaking their head, playing on swings, slides or merry-go-rounds…
But really, the possibilities are endless! We recommend the #stimfreely tag for gifs of people stimming (it’s so cute tbh) and general stimming positivity!
Now that we’ve seen what stimming is, let’s get into some of the common reasons a character might stim, and the benefits they can get from it.
helps regulate their sensory system. If one of their senses is
under-stimulated (possibly because they are hyposensitive to it,
possibly because there just isn’t enough stimulation), stimming can help
put the level of stimulation back to a normal state, and thus alleviate
feelings of restlessness, discomfort, craving or even pain.
is soothing. When an autistic person is upset, anxious or overwhelmed,
stimming, by its regularity and predictability, can help them calm down.
is a coping method. When overstimulated or overwhelmed for another
reason, focusing on another sense can help take the focus away from the
pain and confusion. For example, someone might focus on the feel of
rubbing cloth to avoid being overwhelmed by loud noises. It can also be
easier to deal with a stimulation that comes from oneself than from the
outside world, because it’s more predictable and less chaotic, and it is
not illogical that sometimes, when confronted by for example loud
noise, a person might start tapping their ears to cover the sound: it’s
even louder, but easier to deal with.
- It can help concentration.
is a part of our natural body language and we use it to express
emotions. If you know an autistic person well, you’ll often be able to
tell how they feel by watching what stims they do. One common example is
flapping one’s hands when happy!
- It can be very pleasant and enjoyable. Overall, we’d say this is one of the most important reasons for stimming: having fun and feeling good!
As an additional note, I’d like to add that everybody stims, neurodivergent or not. Even if you’re allistic, you must have caught yourself bouncing your leg when anxious or humming absentmindedly. Especially in moments of extreme grief, sadness, or fear, allistic people often rock back and forth or hit themselves in exactly the same way autistic people do. Autistic people just need it more because they have different sensory systems, which are more demanding and need more regulation.
So please, have your autistic characters stim! Have them rock to calm themselves down and flap their hands when they’re happy and spend hours repeating the same word! Stimming is most often a very positive experience and one of the reasons many autistic people enjoy being autistic and wouldn’t change it for the world. This is who we are, and stimming is a really cool part of who we are, and we’d say it’s an essential part of positive representation of autistic people.
I think we covered the basics, but of course we’re here to answer any specific question about this topic or another. Happy writing!