Some Thoughts on Stimming: Toward An Acceptance of Movement Diversity

“I flap my hands when I am happy. I flap them when I am content. I flap them a lot when I get excited about something. I have as many different ways of flapping and twisting and ruffling and fluttering my hands as I have emotions and emotional combinations that wash over and through me. My hands are like barometers of my emotional climate.”-Maxfield Sparrow

“I tried soccer and hated it. In soccer everyone else seemed to know where to go, and I was always confused. Flapping my hands and jumping up and down, though — that came naturally.”-Zoe

“A student pushes at a piece of paper, flaps their hands, stacks their fingers against their palm, pokes at a pencil, rubs their palms through their hair. It’s silent, until: ‘Quiet hands!’-Julia Bascom

“I also think that people should have a lot of options available, and should be able to decide at any moment whether it’s more important to pass or to feel good. And that is what I think we should teach people: that sometimes it can be helpful to know how to pass, but that doesn’t mean you have to forget how to stim.”-Zoe

[Excerpts from essays published on

Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism]

They go by many names: “stims,” “stereotypies,” “self-stimulatory behaviors,” “mannerisms” and in blind circles, “blindisms.” These labels are applied to a huge range of habitual movements: body rocking, head rocking or head shaking, eye pressing, hand flicking or flapping, spinning or bouncing in place, playing with items, etc. The only thing all these movements have in common, in order to get labeled “stims,” is that they are performed by a disabled person.

I am blind. I used to love banging the back of my head on things. I could spin in place for hours without getting dizzy. I loved anyone who would let me bounce on their bed. I used to flap my hands. I still rock or shake my head sometimes when I get excited about something. Except for the childhood spinning and jumping, these are movements that happen without my awareness.

I used to feel ashamed of my stims. I was told that if I stimmed in public, people would think I “wasn’t all there.” At the time, I tried to distance myself from people with intellectual disabilities, so the threat of being seen as one motivated me to hide my stims. I was compared to other blind people who didn’t stim. I would read books saying that the only reason blind people stim is because their parents or caregivers didn’t work hard enough to break them of it.

But then, a while ago, I realized that nondisabled people stim, too.

Some people tap their pencil in class. Others fidget with their bracelets or squeeze stress balls. Still others bite their nails, or crack their knuckles.

Autistic kids grow up being told to have “quiet hands.” Yet when sighted neurotypicals speak verbally, they sometimes “talk with their hands” too.  They make what seem, to me, like purposeless hand gestures. Nobody tells them to have “quiet hands” or “quiet body.”

I began to wonder why me rocking in the middle of a passionate conversation was that much different from my sighted friend gesticulating.

Nondisabled toddlers run and climb and jump all over the place. They have to be supervised so they don’t fall down the stairs or break their leg. But when a blind or autistic toddler spins in place, completely safe and harmless to others, they are pathologized. I saw a Facebook post recently from a parent whose son’s teacher was “freaking out” about his habitual spinning. The child’s occupational therapist even warned that the spinning would interfere with his sleep. Obviously, she had never experienced the joy and peace of spinning.

We have a cultural double standard regarding the kinds of movement we accept from disabled vs. nondisabled members of our society. And, I believe that our collective antipathy toward stimming is just one more way we tend to consider disabled people as “other.” By pathologizing the movements of disabled people, we forget that these movements arise from the same human needs that drive the movement behavior of nondisabled people. Due to neurological or sensory differences, our stims might look different on the outside.

The term “stim” implies that a movement is done for the purpose of generating sensory stimulation. Sometimes this is true. But, stims can serve many other purposes as well, as I have learned from autistic people. They can generate needed sensory input, but they can also help lessen unwanted sensory stimulation. Stims can serve as full-body emotional expressions. They can release pent-up motor energy that might not be released through more typical outlets. It seems clear to me that humans are wired for movement, and movement serves many other purposes beyond just traveling from one place to another-especially early in life. If children weren’t wired to move, we would see kids only walking if they needed to get somewhere, and only running if they needed to get somewhere fast.

I know that many parents are genuinely unsure how to handle their children’s stims. They want to respect their children, but they are also aware of the negative ways our society reacts to behavior that stands out from the norm. Many disabled people, too, struggle with more general questions of how and when to disclose their disability. Suppressing stims is one way of “passing” as nondisabled, which bears both benefits and costs for the person doing it.

I try to take a dual approach to these kinds of issues. I push to remove social barriers and make the world accessible to everyone. But at the same time, I am a pragmatist, and I know these things won’t happen overnight. That’s why, if a blind student is having trouble accessing an online course for example, I will advise them to make a complaint to the course developer, and then hire a reader to help them while they’re waiting for a resolution. I generally take a similar approach to matters of stimming and passing.

I want to see a greater acceptance of stimming included as part of our broader inclusion and “disability awareness” campaigns. I think much of our aversion to stimming is unfortunately hard-wired in our evolution. We feel uncomfortable with people who move differently, for much the same reason as our discomfort with people who have facial differences, or who vocalize instead of speaking. All of these differences could point to disease or threat. Our human ancestors lived longer if they avoided people who looked, acted, or spoke differently. This is hard-wired, but we know that disability education and contact works to undo these patterns. I would like to see books and videos about stims and how natural they are for neurodivergent people. I also want to see an end to teaching methods that try to undo stims through shaming or punishment. Imagine if all the effort spent on breaking us of our stims could instead be directed toward helping nondisableds get comfortable with the full spectrum of human movement.

But, these shifts will take time. I do think it is appropriate for disabled children to learn about the social costs of stimming. This needn’t be over-emphasized, though. The social costs of looking disabled are pretty obvious to most disabled children, even blind children who are supposedly so unaware of our social environment. We can pick up on other people’s avoidance or judgment pretty quickly. What we need, then, is guidance on alternative ways to stim that are less socially costly. For example, children can be offered trampolines, swings, or enrolled in dance classes. Efforts can be made to adapt typical exercise activities so they are accessible. Fidget objects can be used discreetly under the table. Blind children, who may not know how sighted people express themselves nonverbally in conversation, can take acting classes and learn about gesturing and body language. Individuals who actively want to stop a certain stim can use a reminder bracelet, or ask a trusted loved one to give them discreet feedback so they can build awareness and substitute an alternate stim. We can practice a “quiet hands” pose reserved for public presentations and first dates. Just know if the date goes well, or if it goes horribly, there might be a lot of stimming at home that night.

I think the coolest thing, though, would be if disabled people could have role models who stim. I will close with this quote:

“Stimming in front of my students to relieve tension lets them know they too are safe to do so in the classroom. Disabled students need disabled professors and a curriculum in which they can see themselves reflected.” [From https://m.facebook.com/witchbrain/?refid=52&__tn__=C-R

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