In this article I want to normalise stimming and of course autism stim toys.
In fact, stimming is something we all do to regulate ourselves. Have you ever found yourself tapping your foot in boredom or frustration?
It’s just that autistic people are more likely to stim than neurotypical people, because they tend to have more difficulty with sensory overload and sensory-seeking.
I’ll talk through what stimming is and 30 brilliant ideas for autism stim toys, many of which are actually everyday items you’ll find around the home!
A stim is a self-stimulating behavior common in autism spectrum disorders. It’s used by an autistic person to regulate their sensory input. Examples include hand flapping or finger twisting.
Stimming can be very obvious or very subtle.
For instance, many of the autistic teenage girls I work with in my clinic are highly social aware and engage in stimming behaviors that do not attract attention.
- Stroking the ends of their hair.
- Twisting the pendant on a necklace.
- Humming quietly.
- Biting lips.
- Rocking back and forth slightly in a chair.
Stim Toys: What Exactly Are They?
The stereotype of stimming is often associated with autistic people who have specific special needs and often a learning disability (intellectual disability). However, stimming can be seen in autistic people of all ages and abilities, whether someone has a learning disability or not.
Stim toys are objects designed to provide sensory stimulation and help regulate the nervous system. They can be used to release excess energy, reduce anxiety and increase focus. Autistic adults and children can use stim toys to manage sensory issues and improve concentration.
Stim toys come in different shapes, sizes, and textures, with bright colors and original designs. They can be made of soft materials or hard plastic, and some have small parts that can be manipulated.
The function of stim toys is to provide a calming or stimulating effect on the sensory system, helping to reduce stress and anxiety and improve overall wellbeing.
Stimming Toys And Sensory Needs
Sensory needs refer to an person’s specific requirements for sensory input. In autism, sensory needs are impacted by differences in the way the brain process sensory information, compared with neurotypical people.
An autistic person may be over- or under-reactive to sensory input or a mixture of both.
This is sometimes labelled as sensory integration dysfunction or, more commonly, sensory processing disorder.
Sensory sensitivities may cause overstimulation or under-stimulation from different types of sensory input such as touch, taste, smell, sound, and visual input.
For example, a child may be highly overstimulated by touch. This may mean they find it hard to be in crowded spaces or to wear certain items of clothing.
To support an autistic person’s overall well-being and functioning, it’s crucial that we understand and address their sensory needs.
Stimming and stim toys can play an important role in managing sensory input.
Stims: The Benefits and Challenges of Stimming
In my years as a child psychologist specializing in autism, and as someone with many neurodivergent family members, I know that stimming has so many benefits but can also pose challenges.
- Regulates arousal level for neurodivergent people.
- Self-stim behaviors provide comfort and release stress.
- Stimming can help to filter extraneous sensory information for sensory systems.
- It can serve as a coping mechanism for sensory processing issues.
- Self-injurious stim behavior can cause harm.
- Society may stigmatize or misunderstand stimming behavior.
- Stimming may interfere with daily tasks or social interactions.
- Some self-stim behaviors may be disruptive in certain settings such as the classroom.
Stim Toys You Can Find Around the Home
Sensory toys don’t have to be specialist fidget toys that you spend a fortune on.
For many autistic children or adults, everyday items that you can find around the home are just as effective.
- Velcro strips: Velcro strips can provide a satisfying tactile outlet and sound. They also help children build their fine motor skills through manipulation.
- Beads or jewellery-making supplies: Beads provide tactile activity that can be adapted to the individual needs of the child. For example, some children will benefit from exploring a variety of beads made with different materials and textures. Others will enjoy the repetitiveness of manipulating or threading a set of beads which are all the same.
- Marbles: The cold smoothness of marbles can provide calming sensory feedback for many children. Rolling the marbles can also be soothing and may provide a regulating sound.
- Bubble wrap: Bubble wrap can be a great stress reliever through the effect of the force applied and the sound of the popping sensation.
- Feathers or feather dusters: Feathers can provide light touch or tickles which many children find very relaxing.
- Pebbles or stones: Pebbles or stones can be smooth or rough, or a mixture. This mixture can be regulating for the sensory processing system. Exploring a stone using all the senses can also be a wonderfully relaxing mindfulness exercise.
- Balloons: Balloons, when not blown up to full capacity, are a great idea for a stim toy for children who benefit from applying light pressure to an object repetitively. The act of squeezing and releasing the balloon can also promote hand strength and dexterity.
- Magnets: Manipulating magnets and playing with the push and pull forces can provide a wonderful tactile outlet for those who need to fidget and promote hand-eye coordination.
- Nail polish. Nail polish can be highly satisfying to pick off your nails. Have you ever tried it? It can be a great alternative to skin picking for your child or teen.
- Stickers: Can provide a visual stimulation with bright colors and interesting shapes, but most importantly it can be satisfying to run your finger across them, feeling the ridges at the edges. “Scratch & Sniff” stickers offer yet another sensory dimension.
- Key rings: Of course, key rings / key chains come in many shapes and sizes. They can be metal or plastic, fabric, or a combination. Autistic children often use key rings successfully as sensory aids because they are discreet and easy to carry around. They can be stroked, manipulated or sucked (if clean).
Stim Toys: Resources Your Child Could Use in Class
In this section I have specifically chosen stim toys that won’t draw too much attention and will not distract other students through loud noise or large movements.
However, it is important that your child’s teachers have given permission for the stim toy to be used.
Teachers should have a good understanding about why stimming supports emotion regulation for your child.
If they don’t, try showing the this article!
- Stress balls: Squeezing stress balls can release a great deal of tension through the squeezing action.
- Silly putty: Silly putty is versatile. You can manipulate it into different shapes or you can repetitively put it on and peel it off a hard surface such as a table. You can roll it, squash it or move it from hand to hand.
- Hair ties or rubber bands: These are satisfying to stretch and twist, and can be used subtly in your picket or under the desk.
- Erasers: Erasers can provide a subtle outlet, such as twisting, rubbing or picking.
Specialist Stim Toys and Resources
If your child regularly experiences sensory overload or seeks more sensory input than other children, you’ll find some of the best stim toys to try below.
- Chewable jewellery: Chewable jewellery is one of the favorite stim toys amongst children who come to my clinic. The bracelets and necklaces are subtle and can always be with you when you need them at different times of the day. Many children find oral stimulation soothing (such as sucking or chewing) and this is a great solution.
- Tangle toys: Tangle toys can be manipulated in many different directions. The push and pull of this motion is regulating for children who need to fidget with their hands.
- Tactile blocks: Tactile blocks are also called sensory blocks. They’re usually made of using variety of materials and textures that provide feedback for different senses including tactile, visual and auditory. Often they are marketed towards younger children, but people of any age can enjoy them.
- Fidget spinners: The repetitive motion of spinning a fidget spinner and getting visual stimulation from the result, makes fidget spinners a favourite. Some autistic people like to spin the fidget spinner close to their eyes.
- Liquid timers: Liquid timers can provide calming visual stimulation, which can in turn help reduce stress and anxiety. Watching the slow movement of the liquid is also a wonderful mindfulness activity.
Regular Toys That Can Act as Autism Stim Toys
- Slinky: It’s so satisfying to watch the slinky move by itself, becoming long and twisty, and then returning to its original shape!
- Magnetic balls: Magnetic balls involve forces pushing and pulling and soothing repetitive movements. For this reason they are a great stim toy for many children and young people.
- Rubik’s cube: A Rubik’s cube is a fun and engaging activity for those who like repetitive manipulative motions with a mental challenge.
- Kinetic sand: Kinetic sand can give children a wonderful tactile sensory experience. Not to mention the visual satisfaction and creative outlet!
- Spinning tops: Spinning tops are great because you have to apply quite a lot of pressure to get them going, which is important for regulating the senses. Then, you get the reward of the spinning motion, which also provides wonderful relaxing sensory stimulation.
- Vibrating toys: Vibrating toys can provide a sensory input for those who need it, which can help to regulate their nervous system and promote relaxation. The vibrations can also provide a tactile outlet for those who need to fidget.
- Light-up toys: Light-up toys can provide a calming visual stimulation, which can help to reduce stress and anxiety. The changing lights can also provide a visual distraction that can help to regulate the individual’s mood.
- Pin art: Pin art is a fun toy that is universally popular in my clinic. You can put your hand or face inside (or another object) to produce a 3D copy. The feeling of the pins on your skin, and the satisfaction of the shapes it makes, are regulating and satisfying.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Stim Toys and Fidget Toys the Same?
Stim toys and fidget toys can overlap in terms of their usage, but they serve distinct purposes. Stim toys are specifically designed to provide sensory stimulation and help children with sensory processing issues to focus and regulate themselves.
Fidget toys, on the other hand, are more commonly used as a way to keep hands occupied and alleviate stress or boredom.
It’s important to note that neither type of toy is exclusive to any particular group of people or stereotypical behaviors. Both can be beneficial for anyone who finds them helpful.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
Do Stim Toys Help With ADHD?
Yes! Stim toys can help with ADHD by providing a way for children and young people to regulate their sensory-seeking behavior. They can provide the necessary sensory stimulation to help them focus and avoid distractions in their daily lives.
For people with ADHD who struggle with impulsivity, anxiety, or boredom, stim toys can offer a helpful outlet to release nervous energy and improve their concentration.
Stim toys are a way for students with ADHD to release nervous energy in a way that is socially appropriate and can help them focus on tasks at hand. By occupying their hands and providing sensory stimulation, stim toys can serve as a coping mechanism for people with ADHD. This can lead to a reduction in disruptive or impulsive behavior and an increase in attention and productivity.
Do Stim Toys Help Anxiety?
Stim toys can help with anxiety by providing sensory stimulation that can be calming and soothing. When someone is feeling anxious, their body may be in a state of high alert, and their nervous system may be overstimulated.
Stim toys can provide a tactile and/or visual distraction that can help to regulate the nervous system and reduce feelings of anxiety. The repetitive movements and sensations associated with using a stim toy can have also a meditative effect, which can further calm the mind and body.
While stim toys are not a substitute for professional treatment of anxiety, they can be a helpful tool for managing symptoms in conjunction with other treatments.
Is a Stim Like a Tic?
A stim looks similar to a tic, but there are important differences between the two. Both stims and tics involve repetitive movements or behaviors, but stims are typically self-stimulatory and are not involuntary like tics.
Stims are often used by individuals to regulate their sensory input and provide a sense of comfort, while tics are usually sudden and uncontrollable movements or vocalizations that are associated with conditions like Tourette’s syndrome.
Do People Without ADHD or Autism Stim?
Yes, absolutely! People without ADHD or autism can also stim. Stimming is a natural and universal human behavior that can be observed in people of all ages and abilities.
Some examples of stimming behaviors that are common among neurotypical people include tapping your foot, twirling hair or biting nails.
Stimming is not necessarily a sign of a disorder or a problem, but rather a way for people to self-regulate and cope with the sensory input in their environment.
Sensory Toys For Autism: Case Study – Molly
Molly is a ten year-old autistic girl who is creative and intelligent, and has a tendency to get anxious. She is sensory-seeking in terms of her need for touch through her mouth and her hands.
At school when she was younger, Molly would chew her sleeves and her collar. She would end up with wet patches on her clothes, which made her stand out and she didn’t like this.
Luckily, Molly’s teacher understood autism very well and was skilled in adapting the classroom environment to meet the needs of autistic children.
After discussing the situation with her teacher, Molly’s mum bought her some chewable jewellery in the form of a necklace and a bracelet. This was a game-changer for Molly as she found the jewellery very soothing.
Molly was also allowed to keep some “Theraputty” in her pocket, which she would roll and manipulate in her fingers.
Every day after school Molly’s sensory system was overwhelmed and she needed to use stim toys at home to regulate her sensory system.
Molly and her mum created a sensory box filled with calming items including hama beads, bubble wrap, smooth stones and magnetic balls.
Molly would play with these stimming toys for a few minutes and then do a creative tactile activity: either baking, clay modelling or tending to her flower patch outside, depending on how she was feeling.
It took time to develop and refine this routine, but once established, sticking to it helped soothe and calm Molly. It helped her cope with the everyday demands of school and comtain her anxiety.
Stimming Activities: Getting More Help
I hope you are comforted about your child’s stimming having read this article. I hope it has given you some great ideas for resources that can support your child.
Both types of professionals generally have a sound understanding about the sensory needs of children with a diagnosis of autism and how to support emotional regulation.
Speak to your doctor or healthcare provider to find out about a referral.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.
In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
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