I’ve always been a bit hazy on the difference between these two activities myself. I certainly twitch a lot, but I don’t know which categories it all fits into.
There certainly seems to be some debate even in the wider community. For example, this person literally says
Often the only difference is that when autistic people do it, it’s called stimming and when other people do it, it’s called fidgeting.
Some things, like flapping, are uniquely autistic. Others, like playing with a clicky pen or drumming with your fingers, are more universal. Still, if an autistic person is doing anything fidgety, it gets called stimming and if someone else is doing it, it’s fidgeting.
I guess I like having a word for autistic movement, but I don’t know how I feel about the way that it may imply pathologization of the natural language of our body. I really wish we had an autistic-originated word for stimming.
So that’s not helpful at all.
This other blog has a different perspective:
The problem starts with wrongly associating stimming with anxiety relief, concentration and other similar, secondary types of human behaviour, because while fidgeting does certainly and most of the time unconsciously assist with especially concentration or stress relief, stimming, as a behaviour sequence mostly specific to autistic conditions, is actually a primary neurobiological undertaking, with a very clear role in an autistic individual’s life.
If an autistic person would observe themselves while stimming, they would notice that the stimming activity they are engaged in, requires their dedicated attention, through which the stimming routine is carried out according to a deeply ingrained routine.
By one person’s definition I stim, and often, but the other I’m probably more of a fidget. Except when I’m close to a meltdown/shutdown, in which case I perform the exact same motions, but with intense concentration.
Here’s another definition – this one not from a blog, but from VeryWell:
The term “stimming” is short for self-stimulatory behavior and is sometimes also called “stereotypic” behavior. In a person with autism, stimming usually refers to specific behaviors that include hand- flapping, rocking, spinning, or repetition of words and phrases.
That definition focuses more on the actions of a Stim than on the root cause. The “repetition of words and phrases” part is also know as Echolalia, which I will do separate post on at some point. In another post I caught reference to staring as a Stim, which surprised me a little at first but make sense when you start to think about why people Stim.
Personally, I think the second definition I listed there was the most helpful. There seems to be a lot of overlap in the physical actions of both Stims and Fidgets – foot or finger tapping, clicking pens and cubes and spinning spinners and chewing things. There are some actions that are almost always Stims – flapping hands would be an unusual fidget, for example – but the action alone doesn’t seem to be a clear indicator of “Stim” or “Fidget”.
Fidgeting can help relieve a small amount of stress or anxiety. People fidget before – or during – job interviews, doctors appointments, exams… Stimming is often thought to be used to manage emotions and senses in an almost overwhelming environment. This paper suggests that Stimming can be used to either stimulate a hyposenstive (less sensitive) sense or calm a hypersensitive (overly sensitive) sense. So Stimming *can* be used to relieve stress or anxiety, but can also be used to express happiness, or deal with physical discomfort.
Unfortunately, whilst fidgeting is socially acceptable, many Stims are not. A lot of people try to get around this by buying fidget cubes, toys, or devices. Of course, it’s a double edged sword; as the fidget spinners temporarily become more mainstream, they are also being banned from schools due to distracting overuse during classes. Some people also resent them being misused or overused by allistic individuals who view them only as toys. As one individual says:
For someone fighting a life long battle with stimming, I have an uneasy relationship with the Fidget Cube. It is helping normalise stimming behaviour to many, while also giving a false sense of understanding that can at times lead to dismissal of the necessity of more intense stimming in high pressure situations…
…On a surface level, it normalises stimming. In reality, it only normalises a very small bracket of stimming behaviours, those already manageable in societally acceptable ways.
It’s not unusual to try suppress Stims, either by the person themselves or by their parents, teachers, carers, doctors… and a lot of people think this is unhealthy. Suppressing Stims takes away an individuals coping mechanism or release valve in stressful situations, increasing the likelihood of a meltdown or shutdown. Where possible, most people advise allowing an individual to Stim, so long as the actions in question are not self injurious or become so repetitive as to overshadow all other activities.
Now, to finish off a heavier article, a more light-hearted video…
…and a funny gif as well.
A full list of the resources used in this post: