Stimming vs Fidgeting…

MagnificentHummingbird flapping is living

I personally think it is unfortunate that many NDs have so easily accepted that stimming is “just” the autistic version of fidgeting, because as I see it, the difference is actually neurobiological.

The problem starts with wrongly associating stimming with anxiety relief, concentration and other similar, secondary types of human behaviour, because while fidgeting does certainly and most of the time unconsciously assist with especially concentration or stress relief, stimming, as a behaviour sequence mostly specific to autistic conditions, is actually a primary neurobiological undertaking, with a very clear role in an autistic individual’s life.

If an autistic person would observe themselves while stimming, they would notice that the stimming activity they are engaged in, requires their dedicated attention, through which the stimming routine is carried out according to a deeply ingrained routine. Stimming is as important as any other autistic routine, probably even more important, because while other routines, e.g. replacing the toothpaste tub in the same place and at the same angle after each use (as the routine’s objective), has the toothpaste tub as its object, stimming’s object & objective are identical, permeating actually the person engaged in stimming. While stimming, the autistic individuals employ all their task specific dedicated senses. Now this wouldn’t be unusual, if the respective sense(s) would be analysed, evaluated and responded to, as usually in NT cases, by specific areas of the brain. But since autistic brains are thought to analyse, evaluate and respond through the entire cerebral cortex to all/any stimuli (this being the very reason of sensory overload), an overlapping of sensory receptor(s) and stimulus happens, with the stimulus remaining nevertheless auxiliary in achieving the desired stimulation, with the brain and its response as the ultimate goal. Let me exemplify.

You sit in your car, and start drumming on your steering wheel, knee, door armrest, etc. But this is not your usual drumming on your favourite tune, or unconsciously fidgeting with your fingers while looking at the red light. No, it’s none of these, but your well known, always the same rhythmic sequence, the perfect product of your autistic brain’s systemising function, which combines not only the same audible rhythm, but the sensory impulses received by the same areas of your fingers’ skin from the soft, always the same areas of the wheel, the soft rotating movement of your wrists, dwelling always on the same areas of your legs, while your vision has switched to enhanced peripheral vision, seeing the beginning and the end of your journey, your next WP post and the irregular helix of steam arising from your next coffee, just to name a few…

Having said that, I hope I’ve answered any unasked question about “autistic fidgeting”, which yes, it is certainly possible, but in my opinion never to be mistaken for stimming.

Stimming is like the magnificent wing flapping of a hummingbird, in which all its neurobiology is implicated, which defines its entire being.

What about self-harmful, injurious repetitive actions, one may ask?

According to Lorna Wing (The Autistic Spectrum, New Updated Edition, p.45, 1996), a self-injurious repetitive action such as self-biting, head-banging, etc, “more often […] is a response to distress, anger or frustration […] but self-injury can be a repetitive habit in someone who has no other way of occupying themselves”.

In light of the above, having also witnessed this type of behaviour in non-autistic children and adults with congenital or acquired learning disabilities or limitations, also in animals confined to very small places, I would suggest that such behaviour isn’t necessarily autistic, but a physiological response to pathological stimuli, and therefore shouldn’t be necessarily considered stimming, except in cases of severe learning disabilities when according to Wing “self-injury can be[come] a repetitive habit in someone who has no other way of occupying themselves”. In such cases, protective gear and pharmacotherapy are considered as means of ensuring that the individuals themselves and their environment are protected as much as possible from harm, while maintaining the highest achievable degree of dignity and autonomy.

31 thoughts on “Stimming vs Fidgeting…

  1. I hate the way everyone assumes my stimming is associated with anxiety and don’t seem to believe me when I tell them it has nothing to do with emotion, it’s just a physiological need I have.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Kira,
      I guess we can perfectly agree on this one, same here 👾🖖


  2. Great info, thank you. Although I’ve found some great friends on WP😍, my original intent was to learn from autistic adults so that I could make life easier/better for my kiddo. He’s a sensory​ seeker so it’s difficult for me to pinpoint anything that stands out as a stim. I just always try to let him do whatever makes him happy. Within reason of course, he’s 8😜

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Gran, it is my honour to be of any help, I really appreciate your input and value your insight. There is a lot of misinformation out, about what stimming is, and I wanted to give a personal and professional perspective, counting on both autistics and for the relevant individuals, their carers, to give their sincere views, because I am in the very privileged position of being autistic, a mental health professional, and also pursuing an academic agenda in Autism and Asperger’s.
      In my case, there’s no such thing as “small detail” as it is the smallest of details which could mean a change of tide…
      And maybe that’s what’s needed now.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. ” while your vision has switched to enhanced peripheral vision, seeing the beginning and the end of your journey, your next WP post and the irregular helix of steam arising from your next coffee, just to name a few…”

    very artful writing which injects humor as well as illustrating what’s happening.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Dear Lisa, thank you so much for seeing what was left there as a token from a visual imagery poet, to all artists reading my post 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on the silent wave and commented:
    Yes! I wholeheartedly agree. Stimming may be embarrassing to some, or maybe to others around them, but if this applies to you, please, please consider giving yourself permission to do so whenever you need to. It’s a natural and healthy activity. Excellent post that goes into much better–and much clearer–detail than any of my posts on this topic. Liberty of Thinking is a fabulous blogger of a fabulous blog. One of my earliest friends on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum. I find his balance of logic and feeling very cool (for lack of a better word! I’ll try to come up with a better one ASAP). 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Dear Laina,
      I am overwhelmed…
      Thank you 🙌🤗
      This is the time when I get confused, and words become scarce. I hope one day one of us NDs is going to invent a holographic device through which we could visualise what we can’t verbally express 👾👑🐬

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for taking on this distinction – it’s a question I get asked quite a lot as well.

    I have always conceived of stimming – subtle or overt – as a self-initiated neuro-compensation ‘stimulation’ around which to organize the sensory overload that the ASD brain does not filter OUT in the same manner as the NT brain. To use a lousy analogy, it is similar walking off a cramp — i.e., purposeful, as you point out.

    Fidgeting, on the other hand, which can certainly serve an attentional purpose (i.e., the ‘fidget to focus’ folks), is more a distraction from overload (sensory or emotional), more unconscious in nature – like foot jiggling or hair twoozling, for example. The person fidgeting may not even be aware that they are doing it – which doesn’t seem to be true with stimming – about which you seem to agree.

    In any case, it’s good for me to get an “inside” look at what and why. Thanks!
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Dear Madelyn,
      Thank you, I’m honoured!
      Yes, I absolutely agree. As I said, I acknowledge the relevance of fidgeting for both NDs and NTs, while I believe that stimming is a dedicated undertaking of ND brains, different not only by focus, but by its effects, which is an area of neurobiology still awaiting deeper understanding.
      Looking forward to know more about your specialised area 🤓

      Liked by 2 people

      1. What a lovely response. Thank you for being open to my input. I am always a bit reticent to hit “send” when I post an observation about anything I have not experienced personally – especially on the blog of a person who has.

        I agree that we have only a shallow understanding of the underlying neurobiology involved, so we are all “blind men” trying to get a composite picture from the part we understand best through experience.

        I’m pleased to have been led to your blog (but I have already forgotten how I got here). 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  6. I loved this post! Although, I am still a little confused… I have two nephews that​ I’m pretty sure will be somewhere on the spectrum.
    The younger one’s stim is hand flapping and he has done it for as long as I can remember when he seems excited. Before I heard of the term stimming I thought it was just how he showed excitement.
    From what I’ve read it isn’t that either…just wondering if you could elaborate on stimming a little more for me as I still don’t think I understand.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi MSHK,
      Thank you for your kind comment and interest.💐
      Another post about stimming will follow shortly, but until then, I’ll try to answer your question and dilemma.
      As I mentioned in the article, the uniqueness of stimming (which is the not so fortunate shortened version of ‘self stimulating’) is given by its dedicated focus, with an emphasis on ‘dedication’. When someone ‘stimms’ their attention and involvement focus on the object, movements and complex sensory responses derived from it, become the objective, with everything else becoming peripheral.
      As mentioned in the post, both NDs and NTs fidget, but only NDs ‘stimm’. The complex mechanisms involved in the ND stimming are still to be understood, both causes and effects.
      What you mention, the excitement caused hand-flapping, is in my opinion, a generally occurring, externalized manifestation of emotions, which comes as a physically observable reaction to external stimuli. The difference between this and stimm hand flapping is that the second is not necessarily an adjacent reaction, but a primary action, a purpose in itself.
      I know it might be a bit complicated, but I’ll do my best to further clarify in the next post. 💐🤓

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer. From what you are saying…hand flapping is not necessarily a stimming behaviour? As I said earlier, there is no diagnosis yet but the older one’s teacher mentioned aspergers when she said he needed some testing. Just trying to be prepared to give them the help they may need, and understand the diagnosis a little better. Again, thanks for your help. I will look forward to your next stimming post!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Not necessarily, except when it’s done as a primary occupation. Stimming is a preoccupation which necessitates attention and concentration, even if it doesn’t look like that from the outside. It can be done in parallel with other momentary endeavors, making the autistic person look absorbed and aloof, while actually all it’s being done using a peripheral type of focus. It’s actually very complex. ☺️

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Thanks, I think it my help him find words or organise his thoughts because he often does it when trying to tell you something that excites him. So this helps him focus on what he’s trying to say? Sorry for all the questions. I find this fascinating. Also, I took an online test with 50 or more questions and it said that I have both ND and NT qualities and have OCD. The things I’m learning has helped me to understand some of my childhood traits that some people considered strange. I appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions!😆

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Yes, definitely it does help us concentrate and organise our thoughts, also as you mention, it assists communication when excitement might be overwhelming. It’s all true and actively functional in my case. But it’s very conscious, unlike fidgeting which is more of an unconscious distraction. I’ll detail more in my post. And please ask as much as you need, it is my pleasure and honour to be of any help. 😊🌹

              Liked by 1 person

  7. Very clear and informative post. Thank you for the link!
    So this might include a repititive movement such as the hand tapping, prrhaps hand flapping, foot tapping etc, but the sort of precise repetitive rhythm That csn continue for quite awhile with the whole attention wrapped up in that movement. Am I understanding correctly?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re very welcome! The main thought to always keep in mind, is the absolute uniqueness of each autistic/neurodivergent individual, which includes unique patterns of repetition and stimms. Because while stroking an object or a pet might not look like stimming, it certainly is for some of us even if apparently may lack the preciseness of a repetitive rhythm. For example someone on Twitter mentioned they’ve bought a new, awesome case of coloured pencils, but couldn’t start using them yet, as they were stimming by looking at the precise sequence and order of colours and identity of shapes. Another example is the fascination of some NDs for watching spinning objects, or themselves spining. Therefore yes, hand flapping, twisting, finger and foot tapping, indeed wraps the individual in a wonder I wish everyone could experience. Stress may recall a maybe more limited range of favourite stimms, which are more automatic, BUT, and I absolutely LOVE your observation, have a TUNING effect, following neurochemical algorithms yet unknown, but fully functional and observable.🤓

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Oh I have always loved spinning in circles myself. And then falling over to the floor and watching the room spin around me LOL
    When I was a bit younger I used to improv or trance dance a lot and sometimes I would fall into a trance with spinning. It was the most amazing thing, I would feel totally centered and not dizzy, and full of joy and bliss

    Liked by 1 person

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