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New research on the link between sensory sensitivity and ‘restricted repetitive behaviours’ – or stimming – for autistic and non-autistic adults challenges the view that such behaviours should be suppressed.
Led by Dr Rebecca Charlton and MSc student Gabrielle Nwaordu at Goldsmiths, University of London, researchers analysed the survey results of 340 adults (160 with an autism diagnosis, 139 who suspect themselves to be autistic, and 41 non-autistic) to explore how stimming is used to help self-regulate during times of sensory overload.
Examples of typical stims might include physical actions such as finger clicking, chewing (for example, on pen lids), rocking on a chair or spinning. Visual stims might include watching intently at light refraction off water or specks of dust in the air, while auditory stims often include whistling, humming or clapping.
Prior research typically focuses on childhood and often concludes that stimming is not beneficial and should be eliminated because it could impact learning and hinder engagement with other people. Stims are often deemed to be less socially acceptable with increasing age.
The new study (published in the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders on Monday 21 September) found that for many adults stimming is a means of expressing both positive and negative emotions, and a way to find cognitive distraction. Yet worries over how other people perceive the behaviour lead to feelings of discomfort and attempts to stop.
While a higher percentage of autistic adult participants experienced sensory sensitivity and used stimming than non-autistic adults, this experience and behaviour was found to occur in some non-autistic adults too. 28% of the non-autistic adults who began the survey said that they stimmed, and went on to complete the questions on these behaviours.
Participants described stimming as helping to “realign energy in my body better”, a way to “relieve a build-up of feelings before I get overwhelmed”, a “calming”, “safe” or “soothing”, action, or something that “can also just be pleasant”.
84% of autistic adults said they had been told not to stim or to stop a repetitive movement. Social pressure was given as a reason for suppressing stimming, and this suppression had a negative effect on emotions and cognition.
75% of autistic or suspected autistic participants said that they did not always stim in their preferred way, with most saying that it is because they think other people do not consider it socially acceptable.
“I don't want to get in trouble or distract my co-workers or be embarrassed,” said one 36-year-old female participant, with others also describing worries over drawing attention to themselves, the judgement of others, or embarrassment.
Negative responses to stimming were described as being both explicit (being told to stop, negative comments) and implicit (people staring or moving away). These responses led to preferred stims being supressed and often replaced with substitute stims, with substitutes selected to be less obvious and more socially acceptable but more effortful to maintain and less effective for self-regulation.
Stims which could cause pain or injury were reported too, ranging from nail chewing, head scratching or hair pulling. Participants typically described these actions in matter of fact language – as not something they wished to stop or continue. Dr Charlton and colleagues acknowledge that some stims can be self-damaging and it is important to always consider whether the sensory environment is creating the need for self-injurious stims. The benefits and potential injuries from stimming may vary within an individual over time or in different situations.
Dr Rebecca Charlton, Reader in Psychology at Goldsmiths, said: “Our research suggests that sensory sensitivities are common and associated with stimming and that stimming generally has positive effects for individuals by helping them self-regulate. But we also found that supressing stims is very common, occurs due to social pressure, and has negative effects on individuals. These conclusions are relevant to all three groups who took part in the study.
“Understanding the negative impact of both supressing stims and the social pressure to do so, may be an important step in promoting acceptance of stims. Increasing understanding and acceptance of stims, so that people can stim freely, is likely to have a positive effect on a wide range of individuals.”
“It feels like holding back something you need to say”: Autistic and Non-Autistic Adults accounts of sensory experiences and stimming by Rebecca A. Charlton, Timothy Entecott, Evelina Belova, Gabrielle Nwaordu is published online by Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders.