Stimming, also known as self-stimulatory behavior or stereotypy, means the repetitive movements or acts displayed by people with developmental disorders such as autism. Psychologists believe that stimming may relieve anxiety and have a calming effect when a person is confronted with an overload of sensory stimuli.
Examples of visual or auditory stimming behavior include constant hand-flapping, blinking, staring at lights, snapping fingers, making sounds, or saying the same word over and over. Stimming might also involve rocking back and forth or side to side, or rubbing or scratching the skin. Some people smell, lick or bite themselves, objects or other people. Some stimming behavior, such as nail-biting or hair-twirling, is unobtrusive and common, whereas other behavior such as constant hand-flapping or pacing is considered distracting and annoying.
Stimming can be injurious when manifested in behavior such as excessive scratching, biting or head-banging. Although stimming can be a defense mechanism to protect someone from an over-stimulating environment, it has the negative effect of inhibiting attentive behavior and learning.
Controlling or eliminating stimming may involve verbal reminders, positive reinforcement for self-restraint, or offering alternatives. Options include squeezing a rubber ball rather than hand-flapping, or chewing on another object instead of the person's own flesh. Although drugs are sometimes used to reduce stimming, it is unclear whether the medication directly affects the behavior or merely slows down a patient's motor functions.