A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Spring, 2019 | Number 2, Volume 33

Individuals with ASD cite benefits of self-stimulatory actions

While behavioral programs for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) often attempt to reduce self-stimulatory behaviors (or “stims”) such as hand flapping and rocking, a new study shows that many people with ASD believe these behaviors have value and object to treatments that aim to eliminate them.

In interviews and focus groups, Steven Kapp and colleagues asked 31 adults with ASD to share their views and experiences involving stimming. The researchers found that most participants described stimming as comfortable or calming, with some specifically saying that it served as a self-regulatory mechanism. The researchers say participants’ accounts suggest that stimming creates a feedback loop that helps to regulate responses to overwhelming environments, sensory overload, “noisy” thoughts, or uncontainable positive or negative emotions. They add, “Not all participants reported voluntary control over their stimming, but even those who said they could suppress their stims described depleting, effortful costs.”

Participants said that as they aged, stimming became less socially accepted. The researchers say the participants’ comments revealed how “stigmatization of stimming infantilizes autistic people, who may fear they come across as ‘immature.’” Participants said they felt angry, nervous, frustrated, belittled, shamed, or confused when other people told them to stop stimming. As a result, many suppressed or concealed their stims in public, or altered their stims to appear more socially acceptable. They emphasized the need for neurotypical individuals to understand and accept the value of stimming, while generally agreeing that they wanted to avoid stimming in ways harmful to themselves or others.

The researchers conclude, “The autism field would be best placed to take a more nuanced look at why autistic people perform repetitive motor behaviors so frequently…. Rather than aiming to obliviate all stims, perhaps support for interventions that aid non-harmful stimming and reduce prejudice is the way forward.”

The researchers say that not all participants reported having voluntary control over their stimming, “but even those who said they could suppress their stims described depleting, effortful costs. 


“‘People should be allowed to do what they like:’ Autistic adults’ views and experiences of stimming,” Steven K. Kapp, Robyn Steward, Laura Crane, Daisy Elliott, Chris Elphick, Elizabeth Pellicano, and Ginny Russell, Autism, February

28, 2019 (free online). Address: Steven K. Kapp, [email protected].