Both stimming and fidgeting involve repetitive body movements, but they serve different purposes. Stimming is self-stimulatory behavior commonly associated with autism spectrum disorder, while fidgeting can be a habit for anyone. Understanding the key differences can help parents, educators, and clinicians better support individuals who stim and fidget.
What is stimming?
Stimming stands for self-stimulatory behavior. It involves repetitive physical movements and sensations that stimulate one or more of the body’s senses. These movements are usually rhythmic and flow continuously from one to the next. Stimming provides a calming effect and helps autistic individuals regulate their emotions, focus their attention, and manage sensory input.
Some common forms of stimming include:
- Hand flapping
- Rocking back and forth
- Spinning or pacing in circles
- Snapping fingers
- Repeating words or phrases
- Flicking fingers in front of eyes
- Rubbing surfaces or textures
Stimming behaviors are unique to each individual. They can involve large muscle groups, small muscle groups, or both. Stimming also varies in frequency and intensity depending on factors like stress levels, surroundings, and emotional state. Many autistic individuals stim to self-soothe when overstimulated or excited.
What is fidgeting?
Fidgeting refers to purposeless movements or gestures that don’t serve a direct function or goal. Rather than providing sensory input, fidgeting burns extra energy and relieves boredom or anxiety. It’s a common habit found in people with and without neurodevelopmental conditions.
Some examples of fidgeting include:
- Tapping feet or fingers
- Clicking pens
- Cracking knuckles
- Twirling hair
- Shaking legs
- Peeling nail polish
- Biting nails
Fidgeting behaviors are typically small, discrete movements of the hands or feet. They are performed unconsciously while the person is seated or stationary. Fidgeting tends to occur during downtime when someone is bored, anxious, or losing focus. It can also indicate restlessness, distraction, or inattention.
While stimming and fidgeting can look similar, there are some key differences:
The core difference between stimming and fidgeting is their purpose. Stimming serves a regulatory function for autistic individuals. It helps them manage emotional states, focus, and sensory needs. Fidgeting serves no concrete purpose, but rather indicates restlessness, anxiety, or boredom.
Both stimming and fidgeting involve repetition, but stimming tends to be more rhythmic, fixed, and sustained. Stimming behaviors often repeat in a predictable order and can last for several minutes. Fidgeting is more random and sporadic with no set pattern.
People are rarely aware of fidgeting behaviors as they are subconscious habits. Stimming is generally deliberate and conscious, as the individual intends for it to serve a regulatory function.
Stimming behaviors have an internal function and meet sensory-input needs. Fidgeting behaviors burn energy but don’t serve a specific purpose.
Stimming occurs across multiple situations to regulate emotional and sensory needs. Fidgeting occurs more often when bored, anxious, or losing focus on a task.
Stimming is commonly associated with autism, whereas fidgeting is found in all types of people.
Stimming vs. Fidgeting
Here is a table summarizing some of the key differences between stimming and fidgeting:
|Repetitive self-stimulatory behaviors||Repetitive purposeless movements|
|Provides sensory input||Burns excess energy|
|Self-soothing, calming||Indicates boredom, anxiety, restlessness|
|Conscious, serves a function||Subconscious habit|
|Sustained, rhythmic||Sporadic, random|
|Common in autism||Found in all people|
Supporting Stimming and Fidgeting
Stimming and fidgeting should not always be deterred, as they serve important purposes for some individuals. Here are some tips for supporting stimming and fidgeting behaviors:
Stimming Support Tips
- Don’t stop stimming unless it causes harm
- Provide access to stim toys like fidget spinners
- Teach coping strategies for stimming in public places
- Notice patterns to stimming and triggers
- Offer breaks to stim in private if needed
- Emphasize understanding and acceptance of differences
Fidgeting Support Tips
- Provide fidget toys to occupy hands
- Use small fidgets like stress balls during class/meetings
- Permit movement breaks to release energy
- Notice if fidgeting worsens and assess for anxiety
- Set expectations but don’t punish harmless fidgets
- Add opportunities for movement during sedentary tasks
When to Be Concerned
In most cases, mild to moderate stimming and fidgeting are harmless habits. But in some instances, they may signal an underlying condition that requires attention:
- Self-injury – stimming that causes bodily harm, like hand biting or head hitting, requires immediate intervention
- Interferes with daily function – if stimming or fidgeting severely limits focus or participation in class/work, it may need addressed
- Increases suddenly – a noticeable increase in stimming may indicate the person is more stressed or overstimulated than usual
- Excessive fidgeting could signify an anxiety disorder, ADHD, or sensory processing issues
Consult a doctor or mental health professional if stimming or fidgeting behaviors cause significant impairment or distress in daily life.
While stimming and fidgeting share similarities, they have distinct purposes. Stimming provides sensory input to regulate emotions and focus for individuals with autism. Fidgeting is a purposeless habit associated with boredom, anxiety, and restlessness. Supporting these behaviors appropriately involves understanding their function and tailoring the environment and strategies to meet sensory needs. Focus on accepting differences and accommodation rather than correcting harmless stims and fidgets. Address concerning behavior increases with a professional to improve daily functioning at home, school, or work.