Is there a difference in how adults with high functioning autism engage in stimming behaviors compared to those with low functioning ASD?
Does the “level” of one’s autism affect how they stim?
First off, I know that for many, functioning labels are offensive – but the reality is that the descriptors of low functioning and high functioning, as they relate to Autism Spectrum Disorder, are frequently used terms for the search engine.
Hence, the title of this article uses these Internet-popular terms.
They also serve well to differentiate between autistic adults who manage their affairs independently or with minimal assistance, and those who require full-time supervision and hands-on assistance including for very basic tasks.
What is stimming in autism?
Stimming is a repetitive behavior that serves to regulate one’s emotions, or self-regulate.
Stims can also be done when one feels eagerness, enthusiasm or happiness.
These repetitive behaviors can also be carried out because it feels natural, vs. maintaining stillness. For some, it just doesn’t feel right sitting or standing still.
Anxiety, stress or boredom can also bring out repetitive motions.
Many Autistics stim also because the stim is enjoyable. For example, I frequently stim with my hair.
Its very unique texture and intense natural scent bring me tremendous tactile and olfactory joy.
Stimming, in fact, is part of being human, which is why neurotypical people, too, stim.
But the stims between Autistics and NTs do have major differences.
But what about a comparison between the stims of high functioning autistic individuals and low functioning ones?
Or, to put this another way: stimming among those with Level 1 autism vs. Level 3 (zero to minimal support needs vs. very substantial support needs, respectively).
Differences in Stimming Between Low and High Functioning Autism
The difference can be in terms of why the stim occurs, where it occurs and the nature of the stim.
Since my clinical diagnosis of ASD in March 2022, I’ve developed an interest in stimming (not a special interest, though; more like an academic interest).
I’ve probed deep into my own stims, never realizing until I began my autism diagnostic journey just how much I’ve always stimmed.
I’ve read in autism threads of other Autistics’ stims – high functioning, of course.
And I’ve observed stimming at the many autism-themed events I’ve attended.
The difference between stimming among high and low functioning autism seems to come down to just two metrics.
- Where it occurs
- When it occurs
Someone with mild or HFA will be acutely aware of what stims are “socially acceptable” and will typically avoid conducting those actions where they might be noticed.
They may want to do some dramatic or stereotypical stimming, but – suppress it and maybe conduct a discreet replacement stim to avoid being noticed when they’re around other people.
This would especially hold true in an environment where reserved behavior is expected – such as at church, in a business meeting or job interview, on an airplane, meeting the parents of one’s partner for the first time, etc.
The suppression of stimming is a form of masking, to avoid the detection by NTs of behaviors they’d consider bizarre or just a garden variety of oddness.
Even prior to my realization that I was autistic, I’ve always avoided rocking, which I often do while seated, in the presence of others.
The reason is because I’ve always thought that people would see it as a sign of extreme anxiety or nervousness. Who wants to be perceived as a Nervous Nellie or Jittery Jane? Not me.
I’ve also avoided stimming with my hair around others.
This often includes vocal “co-stimming.” To be seen engaging in this behavior would make people think I was REALLY WEIRD. And I MEAN WEIRD.
There’s a limit to how weird I’ll tolerate someone thinking I am. Hair stimming in public doesn’t just cross the line; it leaps over it.
Furthermore, I derive such intense joy from aggressively sniffing a wad of my hair against my nose, and smothering it with loud kisses, that I can only confine this thrilling experience to at home by myself.
High functioning Autistics may go at great lengths to hide autistic behaviors and “act neurotypical,” and subduing stimming is one of them.
We can be quite self-conscious of what this may look like to others.
I, like many Autistics, employ replacement stims such as repeatedly curling my toes, tensing a calf muscle, squeezing my hands together, clicking my teeth – and quite frankly, the sky’s the limit for what can suffice as an inconspicuous stim.
Now, someone with low functioning autism will not have an understanding of the concept of “What would people think if they saw me doing this?”
They blissfully lack self-consciousness. They’re not trying to fit in or behave in a typical fashion.
For those with the severe and especially profound autism (terms for which it’s certainly heard of for their parents to refer to them as having), there’s no such thing as “How might people perceive me?” or, “This will really make me look strange.”
One might wonder if Level 3 autism usually comes with a low IQ, as it can seem that way.
After all, someone with the cognitive capacity of a preschooler would not have any concept of “People will think I’m mentally impaired if I continuously rock and flap my hands on either side of my head.”
However, the prefix “aut” means SELF.
If a person is unto one’s self significantly enough, regardless of intelligence, they’re not going to be self-conscious.
Hope that makes sense, because in order to be self-conscious, you have to be acutely aware of the concept of what other people might think of you.
TYPE of Stim Doesn’t Seem to Matter
A man in a thread in an online autism community, who worked in an office, posted that in private, he’d get on the floor, curl up in a ball and rock – for a good dose of calming and self-soothing.
Neurotypicals would think the man was nuts if they witnessed this, yet oddly, many NTs would think it’d be perfectly normal if this man traded the eccentric form of self-soothing for getting drunk at a bar’s happy hour to deal with overwhelm.
Those with Level 1 or mild ASD may shout or loudly grunt – in private.
The most self-sufficient, most highly educated person with autism may routinely engage in aggressive rocking and/or hand flapping (when nobody’s around).
They may make any number of peculiar vocal noises, spin on their feet, chew on their shirt sleeves, tear up paper, bite at gadgets designed for bite-stimming – anything’s possible.
However – and I know that some readers are wondering why I haven’t mentioned this, but finally, here it is – there are some high functioning Autistics who DO dramatic or stereotypical stimming in the presence of others.
They just don’t care what people think. They fully realize that observers might think they’re backwards, but the reward of indulging in stimming is greater.
This has become more common as autism acceptance has picked up momentum.
This doesn’t mean they’ll suddenly let loose in court, at a funeral or wedding, during a boardroom meeting, while discussing a price with a car salesman, while speaking to their child’s teacher, etc. They’ll practice discretion during these more formal contexts.
But – if they’re at Walmart, at a restaurant, sitting on a bench at the mall, at the gym, in the waiting room at the vet while their dog is being examined, or some other venue for which proper or strict behavior is not highly valued – they may just decide to stim as they would in private – screw what strangers think.
In a Nutshell
“Many autistic adults who are considered high-masking have a level of control over their stimming,” says says Dr. Jessica Myszak, licensed psychologist, and director of The Help and Healing Center, whose practice is mostly autism assessment for adults.
“They may engage in stims only in private, or they may have developed stims that are less obvious to others — things like twirling hair, wiggling their toes or making a small movement with their hands.
“Often, they may have engaged in more obvious stims earlier in life — but have learned, either by watching the reactions of others or by getting feedback from parents or teachers, that these were undesirable — and made themselves stop doing these things in such an obvious manner.
“For those who might be considered lower functioning by others, there may be less control over these stims, or they may be more apparent to others.
“As a result, these individuals may be more easily recognized as autistic.”
Dr. Jessica Myszak, a psychologist who specializes in autism assessment for both children and adults, is the founder of Autistic Support Network. She sees clients in-person in the Chicago area and over telehealth in 31 states. Learn more about her practice at helpandhealingcenter.com.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical and fitness topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer. In 2022 she received a diagnosis of Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder.