The Happy Dance: A Later Mom’s Reflections On “Stimming” Behavior – By Sherri Yandle

Stimming: “The term “stimming” is short for “self-stimulatory behavior,” sometimes also called “stereotypic” behavior. In a person with autism, stimming usually refers to specific behaviors such as flapping, rocking, spinning, or repetition of words and phrases.”

I found this definition on one of the plethora of sites available on the Internet regarding autism. In general, stimming is associated with negative situations or emotions such as being in a loud room or overly stressed. We also tend to think of stimming as something only autistic people do. This is not generally correct.

If you really think about it, almost all of us stim in some way. One site I read gave examples of hair-twirling or finger tapping as stimming actions. I hair-twirl a lot!

Usually when I am bored or in deep thought, I twirl my hair. I have twirled it so bad I have created huge tangles and they hurt like hell when I go to brush them out. My husband tends to tap his fingers a lot. So, stimming is not just an “autistic” thing. It is just more pronounced and distracting to others due to the more pronounced behavior.

More common stimming activity among those with autism is hand-flapping and head-banging. We call my son, “Sir Dantes’” stimming his “Happy Dance.” He jumps up and down in circles while flapping his hands, grinning, and making a noise that is not quite a hum but not words either. After a bit, he stops and walks the perimeter of the kitchen throw rug. Then he happy dances again for a bit, then maybe he will run up and down the hall, then walk the perimeter of the rug. But, that is not all (oh, no that is not all!) After pacing and dancing, he will throw himself down on the floor and softly bang his head a couple of times and get up to happy dance again. His whole routine can last for a few minutes and be done, or he may do this several times throughout the day. Some of his happy dancing may go on for thirty minutes or so.

Now, if you can picture all that in your mind you can see where this type of stimming behavior would be much more strange than if you watch me sitting on the couch quietly twirling my hair for awhile. My type of stimming is not disruptive to most people. A lot of people wouldn’t even notice my activity, but they will notice my son’s especially if they are trying to concentrate on their own activity. This is one of the reasons it is hard for him to be in a regular classroom. His behavior disrupts the other students. You cannot help but notice it.

If Sir Dantes is having a particularly stimmy day, I try to calm him down by squeezing him. This is basically a big bear hug while I rock with him back and forth. He loves the deep pressure and the rocking. It helps to calm him down. Some days it works better than others. Sometimes all the squeezes in the world will not keep him from his stimming. The only thing that worked one day was, when it got close enough to bed time, I gave him melatonin.

Did he have a bad day? I don’t think so. I think he was just over-stimulated by all the outside activity and got really, really tired. I think another mistake we make is assuming that stimming is brought about by negativity.

On a recent gorgeous Saturday in our little part of the world, I wanted to take advantage and burn some tree limbs (and trunks) that had fallen during the last few storms. With spring quickly approaching, the time was here to start to work in the yard.

We started the outside work a little before noon and didn’t stop until close to six in the evening. I had Sir Dantes and help me gather all the burning material in a wagon to roll back to the fire pit. After we got the fire going I just let him play in the backyard. He hoola-hooped, jumped rope, ran back and forth…Then Sir Dantes went to the tractor supply with his daddy, and then came back outside, gathered more wood, more running around, and so on.

He did not seem upset when it was time to come in. But, I think he was so over-stimulated that making the transition was difficult for him. It was not long after coming inside that the hard stimming started. Perhaps too much of a good thing?

I wonder if it hurts him? I wonder if he realizes how the outside world sees this? I worry more about him physically hurting himself by accident than about how others view him. I wonder how much we should try to control this behavior?

Big question there: How much do we try to control? I know that when my husband sees me twirling my hair it gets on his nerves. So, when he sees me doing it he asks me to stop, but I do not want to until I am ready to. For some reason, it gives me comfort in the moment. When is it time to say, “Okay Sir Dantes, it is time to stop now” and expect him to do it? (Now, something that may bring physical harm is a different story).

There are behavioral drugs out there to help control the stimming behavior that are serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRI’s) or a psychotropic drug. They have their pros and cons. But, do I really want to start down this road? I have heard plenty of horror and success stories about the use of these drugs. Of course, many of these drugs can be adjusted to achieve a good balance. This is definitely a decision left up to individual parents and doctors and the patients.

There may be a time we need a little more control over his stimming or some medicinal help to control his meltdowns, which are a much bigger concern for me when it comes to him hurting himself or someone else, but for now, I think I will let Sir Dantes just keep doing his happy dance.


Sherri Yandle is a 45 year old mom to a six year old boy with autism. She lives in Tennessee with her husband and two children. With degrees in Liberal Arts, History, and Geography, Sherri works full time in property management. She started to blog about life with an autistic child three years ago as a means to reduce stress, share her thoughts and to hopefully help others who have children on the spectrum. To read more of Sherri’s work, go to You can also follow Autism Epicenter on Facebook.