I’ve heard a lot about ‘stimming’ but have not taken the opportunity to read up on it yet, aside from looking up the definition. Stimming is short for ‘self stimulation’ and is manifested in repetitive movements, typically seen in autistic individuals. Like my posts on facilitated communication, I want to relate my personal impressions and experience with this phenomenon before tackling the researching the literature for a more general description.

My brother is autistic, low functioning and nonverbal. I don’t know if he stims or not. He doesn’t exhibit the stereotypical repetitive movements, such as rocking or flapping, but he does have a habit of stimulating himself. He frequently hits himself on the chest gently. If I am near him and he seems in a good mood, he takes my hand and hits his chest with it. As for the obvious self-stimulation, let me put it this way: Mike is an onanophile. Others of his self-stimulations are a little less gentle. He often whacks himself on the side with his arm, like in the ‘chicken dance’. When he is agitated, he will slap his head and bite his hand really hard.

Autistic Mike hitting himself

After Mike came to the group home, he was evaluated and a Tourette specialist found that he had some degree of Tourette Syndrome. If this were true it would mean that his muscular activities like head slapping, and chest thumping could be attributed to involuntary motor ticks. However, the staff at his group home targeted head slapping and chest hitting and met with some success in reducing instances of these behaviors. So it looks like Mike is not Tourettic after all.

Am I a Stimmer?

Maybe I am. I find it difficult to concentrate when I read, unless my feet are crossed and rubbing each other. I’ve tried not doing that and end up falling asleep. This is not new for me. My mother used to call me Thumper, after the Disney character in Fantasia who would beat his foot on the ground. I think I used to rub my feet together when I was in the crib.

I find low vibrations particularly soothing. For instance, the day before I first went off to college, I was so nervous. The only thing that would calm me down was a Bach Toccata and Fugue, played really loudly. I also have a viola, which I mainly use to play one note on the C string, over and over. It vibrates my whole body.


Buddhist monks use chanting to prepare for meditation. The brain must relax when it interacts with controlled ambient vibrations.

I end this piece with a link to a wonderful video, In My Language.  It warrants more than this short introduction, but it fits very well with this discussion. It opens with a voice humming. Subsequent scenes show a woman seemingly involved in stimming activity of all kinds. The second half of the video is a translation of the first half, explaining what each of the activities means.  It is an electrifying glimpse into an unseen, unnoticed language: communicating with the sensory environment.

10 thoughts on “Stimming

  1. I know that image all too well.
    We all all stim. Obviously, it is a matter of degree.
    I make small popping sounds with my lips, whilst I am involved in any intense study, or even cooking and doing household chores. Much to the amusement of others…
    Ahhh, my Mum used to play J.S. Bach’s Passacaglia in C Minor (Leopold Stokowski’s transcribed version: Czech Philharmonic Orchestra) to me as a youngster. It remains one of my favorites today, and spawned my love affair with Bach and the Baroque era..

    • I wonder why we all stim, Rohan. Maybe the brain needs external stimulation when doing internal things… It would be interesting to find out if anyone knows.The trouble with some music is it can be so engrossing that it ceases to be background and becomes something to lose oneself in, to the exclusion of the task at hand.

      • I don’t know Jack. Though, if you find out be sure to let me know!
        I agree, on music.
        Karl Marx said, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.”. I think music has become a similar metaphor/crutch, particularly over the last fifty years. I play piano, and have done for a long time, Certain pieces can be scarily engrossing. The Music of Rachmaninoff has been known to send some pianists insane… go figure.

        Great work you are doing here. Sincerely.
        My partner thinks you are “The Bomb” btw.. Her words.


  2. Discovered recently that stimming is particularly common amongst children blind from birth. So I wonder if stimming is something we all like to do but most of us suppress because we notice that other people around us don’t like it!

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