What Is ADHD Stimming & Why Does It Happen?

Reviewed by Aaron Horn, LMFT

Published 12/22/2020

Stimming behaviors are pervasive in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Although stimming can be completely harmless in many cases, some instances can present extra challenges for people with ADHD. This article will help you learn what you need to know about stimming and how it can be managed.

What Is Stimming?

Stimming is a term that is short for "self-stimulatory behaviors" or simply self-stimulation.

Bored young woman on the phone

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These behaviors refer to any repetitive actions that aim to help stimulate a person's senses, such as their auditory, visual, tactile, and even olfactory ones.

Stimming behaviors are generally always repetitive and can consist of things such as:

  • Tapping
  • Humming
  • Whistling
  • Nail-biting
  • Joint-cracking
  • Hair-twirling

As you can see, these behaviors are very common, and that's because everyone stims sometimes. Sometimes however, stimming behaviors become more intrusive than the ones listed above and can be significantly more disruptive to those around them.

This is the case for those who struggle with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which are both developmental conditions that commonly affect kids.

In ADHD and ASD, some stimming behaviors can be problematic or harmful such as [1]

  • Making sounds or speaking while someone else is (i.e., during a classroom lecture)
  • Biting the inside of the cheek to the point of bleeding often
  • Scratching the skin or picking scabs
  • Punching objects
  • Frequently fidgeting or squirming inside their seat
  • Snapping fingers repeatedly
  • Hair-pulling
  • Head-banging
  • Repetitive blinking
  • Sniffing or licking objects
  • Chewing on inedible items
  • Staring off into space or objects, such as ceiling fans

In the next section, you will learn about some of the various reasons why people stim and the functions it serves.

Why Do People Stim?

As mentioned before, stimming is designed to help stimulate a person's senses, but there are a handful of reasons why people feel compelled to stim and achieve stimulation.

One of the most common reasons people stim, with or without ADHD or ASD, is to relieve boredom and anxiety.

Chances are you've stimmed when anxiously anticipating something, such as sitting in the waiting room at the doctor's office expecting to be called in soon or eagerly waiting for the results of the most recent exam at school.

Stimming helps expend energy that isn't being used, and it can help redirect negative energy, like fear and anxiety.

This is why people stim when they are bored or placed in an unfamiliar or unpleasant environment. It gives them a chance to use the excess energy they have, adapts to the situations they are in, calms themselves down, and even expresses anger and frustration. [1]

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In some cases, people stim to provide relief for pain and discomfort. For example, chewing on a pencil can soothe a toothache, or they want to create noise and cover their ears to try to drown out the world around them.

Younger people with ADHD and autism spectrum disorder may also use stimming to try to gain attention. For example, if a child uses a loud and repetitive noise and achieves the desired result, which is attention, it reinforces this behavior.

Behavioral therapy aims to reduce this and other behavioral issues common with ADHD by helping parents stop reinforcing unwanted behaviors instead of rewarding good ones.

A lot of the time, stimming is a subconscious, involuntary, and automatic response, however, and it can be difficult to know if certain stimming behaviors should be stopped or not.

The next section will detail what types of stimming behaviors should be of concern and how you can determine it for yourself.

Should Stimming Behaviors Be Stopped?

Most of the time, stimming is completely harmless, and there isn't really a reason to stop them, but there are also many reasons why parents and teachers of a child should intervene.

The stimming behaviors that should be controlled primarily are the ones that are interfering with a person's daily life and ability to function, such as at school.

Naturally, the initial reaction from a parent whose child shows "negative" stimming behaviors is to tell them to stop. This isn't helpful, and it may lead to the child replacing it with a stimulatory behavior that's considered worse.

According to Christina Sebastian from California Psychcare, parents and teachers should first stop, think, and ask themselves why the behavior is happening, if it's hindering their ability to learn or interact, and if there are any possible alternatives. [2]

This is because stimming is something that is inherently reinforcing to the person doing the behaviors. It can be soothing and provide relief, or it can be satisfying and enjoyable. Therefore, instead of eliminating stimming, it should be replaced with viable alternatives that help people achieve the same goal but aren't disruptive to themselves and others.

Stimming Solutions

If your child is displaying problematic stimming behaviors, there are countless strategies you can employ to achieve positive changes.

Person Playing With Green Fidget Spinner

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For example, suppose they have stimulating behaviors involving hand movements like hand-flapping and finger-snapping. In that case, the child may benefit from holding onto a stress ball or even a fidget-spinner, which is a toy that surged in popularity because of its potential benefits for people with ADHD and ASD.

Another example is if their stimming involves loud and repetitive talking and vocalization, a popular strategy is to try to have a conversation with them. One common issue related to this is "scripting," which is repeating phrases repeatedly, and in kids, these are usually lines from a TV show that they enjoy.

In this case, parents could intervene by asking their child questions about the show, such as their favorite characters, just so they can get them excited and talk about it rather than resort to stimming.

People who have mental issues can also benefit from hobbies and other activities that can help them cope and expend some energy.

Sports are a good way to accomplish this. Aside from the physical aspects and being energy-consuming, it provides many benefits that can improve their self-esteem. For instance, they can teach your child to work as a team and make friends. It can also help increase their sense of focus.

They can also enjoy games and puzzles to help keep them mentally engaged. Any hobby that has a definitive beginning or end is suggested, and it should always be enjoyable and not overly complicated. [2]

Many techniques try to replace stimming behaviors with more socially-acceptable or safe ones and can be done without the assistance of a therapist, but there are some cases where getting professional help can be useful

In general, behavioral therapy is highly recommended for people with ADHD. It can help teach them valuable social skills and replace other negative behaviors that have been causing problems in their daily lives, such as anger, being argumentative, or trying to annoy others on purpose.

However, it is also used to help people learn how to cope, and learning relaxation techniques they can discreetly use anytime and anywhere can be crucial for those who feel stressed and anxious.

Woman Sitting on White Couch While Reading a Book

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Overall, the goal isn't to try to stop stimming; rather, it's to find ways to stim that isn't burdensome or harmful to themselves or those around them. There is always an alternative solution that can help people achieve the same, if not better, stimulation. However, if it doesn't seem like there is an issue, there is no harm in leaving the stimming alone.

How To Get Help With Stimming

If you notice your child stimming often, don't be alarmed as this is not automatically an indicator that someone has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism spectrum disorder. As mentioned earlier, everyone stims, and a lot of the time, it can be a good thing to do so.

However, suppose the stimming is problematic and there are possible signs of ADHD or another issue. In that case, you are advised to reach out to a mental health professional who has experience in accurately diagnosing people with developmental disorders.

Once a diagnosis has been made, typically, medication will be prescribed and can be used to improve some symptoms. You will most likely be referred to a behavioral therapist who can help eliminate unwanted behaviors and replace them with positive and helpful ones. This includes a wide range of possible behaviors, including stimming.

If you think that your child or even yourself might have ADHD, you can take this free test and get a better idea of what might be contributing to the stimming. Once you get your results it's recommended that you make an appointment as soon as you can for a formal diagnosis.

Conclusion

Stimming is completely normal behavior and response to different situations. However, if you think there may be a problem with it, there are steps you can take to help manage and replace these behaviors. Stimming can be done safely and without being disruptive. It's all about finding ones that work and don't interfere with a person's life.

References

  1. Pietrangelo, A. (2019, June 28). Stimming: Causes and Management. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/autism/stimming
  2. Sebastian, C. (2016, July). Everyone Stims: When To ReDirect [PDF]. Cigna/California Psychcare. Retrieved from: https://www.cigna.com/static/www-cigna-com/docs/individuals-families/bhs-autism-2016-july-handout.pdf