Neurodivergent Stimming vs. Fidgeting

Cam Russo
Neurodivergent Stimming vs. Fidgeting Neurodivergent Stimming vs. Fidgeting

Neurodivergent individuals, including those with conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), often exhibit unique behaviors, including stimming and fidgeting.

These behaviors play a crucial role in sensory processing and self-regulation, providing a coping mechanism for individuals who process stimuli differently.

This article will explore the difference between stimming and fidgeting, their association with neurodivergent conditions, and their benefits in managing sensory overload.

We will also discuss various techniques and strategies to help individuals regulate their sensory experiences effectively.

Stimming vs. Fidgeting

Stimming, short for “self-stimulatory behavior,” encompasses a wide range of repetitive actions that individuals engage in to self-soothe, manage intense emotions, and process overwhelming stimuli.

It is commonly associated with conditions like autism but can also be observed in individuals with ADHD or other neurodivergent traits.

Stimming behaviors can involve physical gestures, sounds, or visual stimuli and serve as sensory regulation.

On the other hand, fidgeting refers to small, often unintentional movements that individuals make to manage anxiety, improve focus, or calm their nervous systems.

Unlike stimming, which is more intentional and habitual, fidgeting is generally associated with inattention or the need for tactile stimulation.

Common examples of fidgeting include tapping feet, shifting in chairs, and crossing and uncrossing arms and legs.

While stimming and fidgeting share some similarities, such as their ability to regulate emotions and provide a sense of control, they differ in intensity, purpose, and the sensory experiences they encompass.

Understanding these distinctions can help us appreciate the diverse ways in which neurodivergent individuals navigate their environments and express themselves.

Stimming: A Therapeutic Mechanism for Neurodivergent Individuals

Stimming is a natural and therapeutic mechanism for neurodivergent individuals, particularly those with autism.

It allows individuals to manage intense negative or positive emotions and aids in sensory processing for those who struggle with overwhelming sights, sounds, or scents.

Stimming behaviors involve various sensory modalities, including auditory, visual, vestibular, and proprioceptive sensations.

Examples of stimming behaviors may include:

    • Clapping
    • Rocking back and forth
    • Staring at stimuli for prolonged periods

These actions serve as a means of self-regulation and can provide comfort, relieve anxiety, and promote emotional well-being.

It is important to note that stimming behaviors are unique to each individual and may serve different functions for different people.

While some stim to soothe anxiety, others stim to express excitement or joy.

The creativity and individuality of stimming behaviors highlight the diverse coping skills and self-expression of neurodivergent individuals.

ADHD and Stimming: A Focus-Enhancing Connection

Individuals with ADHD often find stimming behaviors extremely helpful in managing their symptoms and enhancing focus.

Stimming can serve as a compensatory mechanism for under-arousal or under-activity in specific brain regions associated with ADHD.

The increased movement, often labeled as hyperactivity, seen in individuals with ADHD may unconsciously help them maintain attention and task engagement.

ADHD medications, such as stimulant medications, have been shown to reduce stimming behaviors as part of their treatment effects.

The calming stimming indicates that the medication is effectively treating ADHD symptoms and improving focus.

Staying focused and engaged without resorting to stimming behaviors can greatly benefit individuals with ADHD in academic, professional, and personal settings.

The Role of Stimming in Autism Spectrum Disorder

For individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), stimming is a common and important aspect of their daily lives.

Autism diagnoses often come with challenges related to sensory processing and overstimulation.

Stimming behaviors enable individuals with ASD to regulate their sensory experiences, manage anxiety, and express emotions.

It is worth noting that stimming behaviors in autism can vary widely from person to person.

While some individuals may engage in hand flapping or rocking when excited, others may exhibit different stimming behaviors.

Fidgeting: A Tool for Focus and Sensory Regulation

Fidgeting, although often seen as a distraction or a sign of inattention, can be helpful for individuals, especially those with ADHD or sensory processing difficulties.

Fidgeting behaviors can help individuals redirect their focus, increase physiological arousal, and combat boredom or restlessness.

Contrary to popular belief, fidgeting can enhance concentration and improve performance on complex tasks.

Contrary to popular belief, a study conducted at the University of California’s Davis MIND Institute found that fidgeting can enhance focus and completion of complex tasks for children with ADHD.

The increased movement associated with fidgeting compensates for under-arousal or under-activity in specific brain regions, similar to the function of stimming in ADHD.

Fidgeting can take various forms, including visual, auditory, tactile, and balance-based behaviors.

Examples of fidgeting include:

    • Tapping fingers on a desk
    • Spinning pens or coins
    • Doodling
    • Wiggling toes
    • Tapping feet
    • Leg bouncing when seated

These actions provide individuals with a sensory outlet to regulate their attention and energy levels.

Stimming Techniques and Strategies for Sensory Self-Regulation

Stimming and fidgeting behaviors can be valuable tools for individuals to self-regulate and manage sensory overload.

However, ensuring that these behaviors are safe, non-disruptive, and promote an individual’s well-being is essential.

Here are some techniques and strategies that can help individuals effectively regulate their sensory experiences:

    1. Provide sensory tools and fidget toys: Fidget toys, such as stress balls, fidget spinners, or textured objects, can offer a safe and discreet outlet for stimming or fidgeting behaviors. These tools provide tactile stimulation and help individuals redirect their sensory focus.
    2. Incorporate movement breaks: Encourage regular breaks during tasks or activities requiring sustained attention. These breaks can involve stretching, walking, or engaging in light physical activities to release excess energy and enhance focus.
    1. Identify sensory triggers: Work with a healthcare professional or occupational therapist to identify specific triggers that may lead to stimming or fidgeting behaviors. By understanding these triggers, individuals can develop strategies to manage or avoid overwhelming sensory experiences.
    2. Practice deep breathing and relaxation techniques: Teach individuals deep breathing exercises and relaxation techniques to help them calm their nervous systems and reduce anxiety or stress. These techniques can serve as alternative coping mechanisms to stimming or fidgeting behaviors in certain situations.
    3. Create a sensory-friendly environment: Adjust the individual’s environment to create a sensory-friendly space. This may involve reducing excessive noise, providing comfortable seating options, or incorporating sensory-friendly lighting.

By implementing these techniques and strategies, individuals can effectively regulate their sensory experiences, improve focus, and enhance overall well-being.

Wrapping it Up

In conclusion, stimming and fidgeting are valuable tools for neurodivergent individuals to self-regulate, manage sensory overload, and enhance focus.

Understanding the distinction between stimming and fidgeting, their association with neurodivergent conditions, and their benefits can promote acceptance, inclusivity, and support within our communities.

The information provided in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Do not disregard or delay seeking professional medical advice because of something you read in this article.

Article References

  1. University of California, Davis (2015, June 10). Fidgeting may help children with ADHD perform better in school. Retrieved August 19, 2023, from

  2. Hartanto, T. A., Krafft, C. E., Iosif, A. M., & Schweitzer, J. B. (2016). A trial-by-trial analysis reveals more intense physical activity is associated with better cognitive control performance in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Child neuropsychology : a journal on normal and abnormal development in childhood and adolescence22(5), 618–626.