What Is Stimming?

Stimming is a shorthand term used to describe self-stimulatory behavior. Someone who is stimming will produce repeated movements or sounds as a way to soothe themselves or maintain attention.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists stimming as one of the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. As a result, it has become closely associated with autistic individuals. However, some people with ADHD and even neurotypical individuals can also engage in self-stimulatory behaviors. Just because someone is stimming does not mean that they have autism or ADHD.

Types of Stimming

Some of the most common types of ADHD stimming include:

  • Balance-based stimming: Spinning, rocking, shaking the head, leg bouncing
  • Verbal stimming: Singing, giggling, throat clearing, muttering, making repetitive sounds
  • Visual stimming: Doodling, staring off into space, spinning objects like coins or pens
  • Touch-based stimming: Scratching, teeth grinding, rubbing fingers together, nail biting, hair pulling, chewing the insides of the cheeks

Brief fidgeting to get comfortable in a seat or in a moment of inattention generally isn't considered stimming. But if someone is fidgeting in a way that's incessant over a period of time, whether it's a few minutes or a few hours, that would be considered stimming.

The Connection Between ADHD and Stimming

Experts suspect that ADHD stimming happens as a result of a lack of arousal in the parts of the brain affected by the disorder. For people with hyperactive symptoms of ADHD, stimming may help to increase dopamine in the brain, which can then boost focus and alertness.  

As a result of this connection, stimming with ADHD often occurs in moments when the person is feeling bored or under-stimulated. Stimming helps to engage their brain and keep their attention.

However, maintaining focus isn't the only reason that people with ADHD might default to stimming. It can also help to decrease anxiety. ADHDers may find that stimming helps to calm them in situations that feel overwhelming.

ADHD Stimming Pros and Cons

Because stimming can help to maintain attention, it can actually be beneficial to people with ADHD. A study conducted by the ADHD Program at the University of California Davis MIND Institute found that children with ADHD exhibited improved performance on complex tasks requiring sustained attention when they were fidgeting. The intensity of their movement actually corresponded to more accurate responses during the study. Meanwhile, children with ADHD didn't see any difference in performance based on how much they were moving.

Despite these benefits, there are also some drawbacks to ADHD stimming. Excessive fidgeting can create disruptions in a classroom or be distracting in a business meeting, for example. And if a person is stimming frequently, it could also affect their productivity at school or work and the quality of their relationships. For example, stimming might help a person with ADHD feel more focused, but certain behaviors might cause a friend or family member to feel ignored or annoyed.

How to Manage ADHD Stimming

Figuring out how to manage stimming is important when it starts to interfere with your life. While stimming can be helpful in certain ways, there are also limits to what's acceptable in public environments. Furthermore, relying too heavily on stimming for focus or self-soothing could be a sign that someone is in need of an improved treatment plan to help control their ADHD symptoms.

Consider the following methods for managing ADHD stimming:

  • ADHD medication: An effective medication will help to reduce hyperactivity and improve focus.
  • Behavioral therapy: This type of therapy can help you change unwanted behaviors.
  • Fidget tools: Small, quiet gadgets serve as an alternative to more disruptive stimming behaviors.
  • Accommodations: People with ADHD can get accommodations at school and in the workplace through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), such as active seating.

While these tools can help to manage ADHD stimming, it's important for parents and teachers of children with ADHD to remember that some stimming can be helpful for their child. Instead of punishing a child for fidgeting, consider whether there are some other outlets for their hyperactivity which can be incorporated into their routine.

If you're an adult who engages in ADHD stimming, look for healthy ways to release your excess energy. Fidgeting can be useful, but it's important to monitor whether stimming is a default response for anxiety or a crutch that you lean on too heavily when your ADHD symptoms feel overwhelming.

Need help managing your ADHD? Done is here for you. You can fill out a quick online assessment to get started, followed by a virtual consultation with one of our licensed ADHD clinicians.