What Is Stimming, and Is Stimming Helpful for Kids With ADHD?

ADHD Awareness & Support

For families of children with ADHD it’s a common part of life. Bouncing, humming, pacing or tapping, there are many ways to self-stimulate, or stim, and chances are your child has several favourites. Stimming and fidgeting may be used fairly interchangeably for kids with ADHD as they both produce the same outcomes. Stimming brings calm when there is frustration or anxiety and enhanced attentiveness when focusing.

Frequent stimming is one of the most recognizable signs that your child may be dealing with ADHD, and not just the usual childlike energy. In fact, stimming can be quite intense and produce almost a meditative state. That’s because, for children with ADHD, stimming isn’t a distraction; it’s a way to focus.

What Is Stimming?

As an accepted part of an ADHD diagnosis, stimming is quite new. Repetitive movement amongst people with autism was noted from the very first time the condition was described in the 1940s. However, it was not defined as a symptom of autism in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) until 2013.

The DSM-5 included it among the diagnosis criteria for autism: “Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech.” In the years since, the popular definition of stimming has expanded to include the typical fidgeting of Hyperactive ADHD.

And, while stimming is most typical amongst people with ADHD and autism, you or someone you love might even engage in stimming while not having ADHD. Stimming by someone who does not have ADHD and/or autism will likely be less intense and less frequent. Biting your fingernails, tapping your foot and rocking are all forms of stimming you might recognize in yourself or others, with or without a diagnosis.

Types of Stimming

There are as many examples of stimming as there are people in the world, but they are grouped into a few main categories.

Visual stimming: Flipping pages without looking at pictures, watching water, excessive drawing, pacing, spinning objects like coins or toys.

Verbal or auditory stimming: Inappropriate or excessive giggling, humming, constantly singing, repetition of odd sounds and noises, compulsive throat clearing, or making throat noises.

Tactile or touch stimming: Rubbing fingers, chewing inside cheeks, excessive skin scratching, hair pulling, teeth grinding, biting or chewing fingernails.

Vestibular or balance-based stimming: Spinning, rocking, swinging

Other common stimming examples: Excessive gameplay or pretending, acting out a movie scene repeatedly, excessively sharpening pencils, writing numbers or days of the week over and over.

How Does Stimming Help Kids With ADHD? 

Research on stimming is still developing. A landmark 2015 study of hyperactive fidgeting amongst children with ADHD provides the most relevant proof of the power of fidgeting, or stimming. Researchers measured the physical movement of 44 children with ADHD as they performed a test of their focus. They found that more physical movement was generally associated with better performance in the task at hand. Interestingly, this advantage was unique to the children with ADHD. Those without ADHD performed better when they moved less.

While fidget devices may cause distraction in a classroom environment, they can serve an almost orthotic purpose for a child with ADHD. The commonly held understanding amongst researchers, doctors and educators, is that stimming assists children with ADHD to focus in a way the research shows it does not for children without ADHD.

Harness Stimming for Success with ADHD

The advocacy and support group, Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), recommends “harnessing” stimming and fidgeting to improve focus. This is a more positive and effective approach than simply suppressing stimming. 

Accordin to Carey A. Heller, professor of clinical psychology at George Washington University, there are four guidelines for harnessing stimming:

Tools should target specific fidgeting habits. For example, use a hand fidget intervention to address finger tapping.

Interventions should ideally not take away visual or auditory focus. One should not be distracted by the intervention from the task one is completing or from listening attentively.

Tools should not be too stimulating. While a fidget spinner can be fun, the movement and excitement of it often leads to increased distractions. 

Strategies should be discreet when using them in public. Using your own body parts (such as feet or hands) in a controlled way is a discreet tool for older children and adults because it does not require any items and may not be really visible to others.

Stimming can become problematic when it becomes severe and/or frequent enough that it interferes with social and school or work participation. Still, suppressing the self-stimulating behaviour doesn’t solve the need for stimulation.

Instead, using strategies and substitutions for one’s particular stimming activities can help a person with ADHD to reap the benefits of stimming without social and academic fallout. 

 

Is stimming a characteristic of ADHD that you recognize in your child? How have you helped your child harness stimming for focus? Share below!