How Exercise Affects Stimming in Autistic Children

The term "stimming" is short for self-stimulatory behavior. I see two types of stimming behavior among the children and young adults in my autism physical fitness practice: positive and negative.

In both groups, a program of vigorous exercise reduces the need to stim, possibly because exercise releases beta-endorphins just like stimming. In fact, an analysis of 16 behavioral studies on the benefits of exercise for people with ASD showed an overall improvement score of 37.5%, with the greatest benefits coming from at least 15 minutes of intense exercise on a regular basis.

What causes stimming?

Positive Stimming is self-calming action that takes focus off whatever is causing a sensory over-reaction and helps children on the spectrum calm themselves. Positive stimming includes rocking, hair twirling, hand flapping, humming or singing, spinning, or repeating words and phrases. These behaviors often are a reaction to sensory overload from noise, lights, crowds, or an unpleasant emotion like anger, anxiety or fear. But stimming also can be a response to pleasant emotions.

Everyone stims. Many of us tap our fingers on the desk when we’re thinking, twirl our hair, bite our nails when we’re anxious. In reaction to wonderful news, people jump up and down, scream, or repeatedly pump their arms in the air. The difference with autistic stimming is that it interferes with social functions and activities of daily living.

Negative stimming includes thrashing, head banging and high-pitched screaming.The person doing these behaviors doesn’t know how to communicate how they feel or what they want. Unfortunately, negative stimming often results in self-harm.

“How do I stop the harmful stimming?” is a question parents ask when their young child with ASD starts stimming.That’s the wrong question.

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The right question is “what is the reason for this behavior?” Forcing a child to stop negative stimming may lead to even more withdrawal from interactions, or a worse form of stimming. Self-stimulation may be a sign of a medical problem that the child can’t describe.

When negative stimming occurs, take these steps:

  • See your medical team to eliminate causes like ear infections, headaches or other physical issues

  • Re-evaluate meds and dosage

  • Make sure that the demeanor of the child’s main caregiver is calm

How fitness helps reduce stimming

If there are no medical conditions causing stimming, it’s time to look at opportunities for positive approaches. The best option is exercise. I see remarkable improvements in the behavior of children and teens in my individual fitness programs.

We work to enhance physical abilities and achieve empowerment through goal setting, visualization and positivity. Exercise helps reduce injury from muscle imbalances, and expand their capabilities and overcome challenges to learning, performance and socialization.

Using compassion, consistency, and appropriate rewards, fitness helps children enhance physical abilities and achieve empowerment. There are several case studies on my website.

Exercise can take many forms, from jumping on a trampoline, to throwing a ball, running, kicking a soccer ball, to strength training. Of course, no exercise program will be successful if your child doesn’t like it. That’s why we look for activities the child will enjoy and want to continue.

The key is getting your child off the couch, lowering screen time and increasing movement. With consistency, you’ll see big improvements in self-regulation, self-esteem, self-reliance and motor skills. And less stimming.