Autism Awareness Day #18


A “stim” refers to self-stimulatory behaviour such as hand flapping, rocking, spinning or the repetition of words and phrases. We all self-stimulate to a degree.  Some of us chew gum, tap our pens, jiggle our legs or bite our nails.  Individuals on the spectrum use ‘stims’ to help manage their anxiety or other negative emotions, or perhaps to help them to handle too much sensory input (too much noise, light, heat etc).  The level of their self-stimulatory behaviour is higher and more intense than that of their neurotypical peer group. .

Tom is a visual stimmer. He likes to get down to his toys at eye level; he often skims his hat rim with his eyes when he’s wearing hats; he likes to watch the light flick through his fingers; he will often watch his ipad using his peripheral vision only; and he frequently does odd things with his eyes (cross them, look sideways at objects, go cross eyed etc).  Tom is also the child that liked to line up our shoes nice and straight against the wall, all facing the same way.  He also still likes to line his mini-figures up in rows.  He then lies beside them at eye level and looks intently at them.

When James was younger he had a number of ‘stims’ including toe walking; spinning his entire body, looking at objects at eye level and flapping his hands. These stims have changed as he is getting older.  It’s very rare now to see him toe walk and the flapping is all but gone too … a bit sad because I loved the flapping …  there was such unbridled joy in it!  These days, I more notice the vocalisations and whistling.


James at the age of 3. He loved to lie up on the table and push his beloved trains around at eye level. Like Tom, James  adored Thomas the Tank Engine. In this picture you can see that James also loved to kiss Thomas and whisper to him.

Both boys make a lot of noise constantly – they vocally stim. I often question Tourette’s Syndrome with both of them because of the intensity of this behaviour.  James’ whistling when he’s occupied with some activity is incessant.  It is not melodious – it is chaotic! And it is very difficult to disregard!  James also does random vocalisations which can take years off your life.

For example, right now it’s 4:55am. James woke me up due to being anxious about the fact that he himself was awake.  After combined failed attempts to get back to sleep we have both ended up out in the lounge room.  He is watching “Stampy Longnose” (Minecraft YouTube sensation) and I am typing this.  The ambience is that of the early morning – quiet, peaceful.  Then out of the blue just moments ago he shrieked on top note, just a scream really! My heart just about flew out of my body.  In our house, we affectionately name this random shrieking as a “sonic attack” (borrowed from Pokemon!)


Tom is the master of the “sonic attack” (as we affectionately call it in this house!) It has taken years off my life, I’m sure.  I will admit to having the odd chortle to myself when we are out shopping and I’ve noted others’ reactions to his “sonic attacks”.

Sometimes strategies such as using gum can help or some vigorous physical activity, but usually the need to stim just needs to take its course. If you happen to have an ASD individual in your class, in your family or even if you see them at the shops and you note this behaviour … have a think about how hard it would be to just stop chewing your nails, or stop drinking your glass of wine each evening, or give up your morning coffee!  The need to stim is possibly greater than these things and in the overall scheme of things … really not difficult to accommodate.


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