Alharith Dameh

Autistic Experiences with and Perceptions of Stimming

Autism is a natural neurodevelopmental variation frequently characterized by differences in motor control; speech and language development; and sensory processing. Consequently, autistic individuals often have different forms of social intuition and adaptive behaviors. Restricted, repetitive behaviors (RRBs) are one such adaptation; they are one of two major diagnostic criteria for autism and include a continuum of behaviors from hand/finger flapping to whole-body movements. These labels of ‘restricted’ and ‘repetitive’ have historically been used to stigmatize the autistic community and thus been reclaimed by the community as ‘stimming,’ or ‘stims.’ Stimming has largely been seen as nonfunctional and interventions to eliminate stimming maintain prominence among parents and teachers of autistic youth. Autistic adults, however, have attested to stimming’s utility in self-regulation and as an alleviator of overstimulation, anxiety, and stress. Using a self-report survey via Qualtrics, we surveyed 131 autistic adults to better understand their experiences with stimming as it related to their social relationships, communication, and emotions. More than half of participants reported stimming to be an important part of their friendships with other autistic people; more than two-thirds reported stimming as helpful in connecting with other autistic people; and about three-quarters indicated an ability to gauge other autistic people’s emotions based on their stims. These findings show that stimming plays a significant role in many autistic people’s social relationships and reaffirm the need for future research exploring stimming’s role in emotional expression and comprehension.