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Do People With ADHD Stim?

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Stimming, or self-stimulatory behavior, is a common occurrence seen in various developmental and neurological conditions. But do people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) also engage in stimming? Let’s look at the relationship between stimming and ADHD, exploring the prevalence, triggers, and management strategies to provide a more comprehensive understanding of this behavior.

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What Is Stimming?

Stimming is an activity or behavior that a person performs to soothe or stimulate themselves. It encompasses a variety of repetitive actions or movements that can help manage feelings of anxiety, overstimulation, and other overwhelming sensations. Stimming behaviors are often sensory in nature and can involve any of the senses.

Physical Manifestations

Physically, stimming can take on numerous forms, such as rocking back and forth, flapping hands, or tapping feet. These repetitive motions are commonly seen and can serve as a way to dispel excess energy or to create a sense of balance and calm within the individual.

Auditory and Verbal Expressions

Stimming can also be auditory or verbal. Some people might repeat words, phrases, or sounds, or engage in behaviors like humming or tapping to create a rhythmic sound that helps in self-regulation.

Visual and Sensory Aspects

Visual stimming might involve staring at lights, watching spinning objects, or flickering fingers in front of the eyes. These actions stimulate the visual senses, creating a focal point that can help manage sensory overload or anxiety.

Purpose and Function

The primary purpose of stimming is self-regulation. It helps people manage the sensory input they receive from their environment, allowing them to cope with stress, anxiety, or other intense emotions more effectively. Stimming can provide comfort, help in focusing, or assist in managing pain or discomfort.


While stimming behaviors are prevalent in neurological and developmental disorders like autism, they are not exclusive to these conditions. Many people, even without any diagnosable condition, may engage in stimming behaviors, albeit in more subtle forms, to manage their emotions or sensory experiences.

Understanding stimming involves recognizing it as a coping mechanism — one that aids individuals in navigating their sensory experiences and emotions. The various forms of stimming, each unique and purposeful, highlight the complexity and individuality of this behavior.

Prevalence of Stimming in ADHD

In the context of ADHD, stimming behaviors, while not as commonly highlighted as in conditions such as autism, are nonetheless a prevalent enough aspect worth exploring. People with ADHD often grapple with heightened restlessness, impulsivity, and a torrent of intense emotions, creating a landscape where stimming emerges as a natural coping strategy.

The Link Between ADHD and Stimming

ADHD is primarily characterized by symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. These symptoms can create a whirlpool of internal chaos and stress, making the self-soothing aspect of stimming particularly beneficial. People with ADHD might find that stimming helps channel their hyperactive energy and allows them a means to self-regulate and manage their focus and attention.

Forms and Types of Stimming in ADHD

Stimming behaviors can vary widely among individuals with ADHD. While some might be more noticeable, others can be subtle. Here are some common stimming behaviors in those with ADHD:

  • Leg shaking: A rhythmic movement of one or both legs, often done unconsciously when seated.
  • Fidgeting: Using hands or fingers to touch or play with objects, such as twisting hair, spinning pens, or playing with small items like fidget spinners or stress balls.
  • Tapping: Repetitively tapping fingers on surfaces, often in a rhythmic pattern.
  • Frequent repositioning: Shifting positions regularly when seated or standing, displaying an inability to stay still for extended periods.
  • Biting or chewing: Gnawing on pens, pencils, or nails, or even chewing gum excessively.
  • Humming or making repetitive sounds: Producing low hums or other repetitive noises, sometimes unconsciously.
  • Touching or rubbing: Repeatedly touching certain textures, fabrics, or surfaces that provide sensory comfort.
  • Flipping or twirling objects: Continuously flipping a coin, twirling keys, or moving an object in one’s hand repetitively.

These behaviors are just a few examples, and they might manifest differently from one person to another. The underlying factor is that they serve a purpose in helping people with ADHD manage their sensory input, emotions, or energy levels.

Navigating Emotional and Sensory Overwhelm

Given the emotional volatility and sensory sensitivities often associated with ADHD, stimming becomes a tool through which individuals can navigate their daily experiences. It acts as a bridge, allowing them to traverse the gap between overwhelming sensations and a state of balanced focus and calm.

Understanding and Acceptance

Recognizing the prevalence of stimming behaviors in ADHD is crucial for fostering understanding and acceptance. By appreciating stimming as a self-regulatory practice rather than a disruptive behavior, we can create supportive environments that respect the needs and adaptive strategies of people living with ADHD,

Recognizing the Triggers of Stimming Behavior

Recognizing the triggers of stimming behaviors in individuals with ADHD is fundamental for developing strategies to manage these behaviors effectively. Identifying and understanding these triggers can enable people living with ADHD, and the people supporting them, to respond proactively and reduce the frequency or intensity of stimming. Here are some common triggers and considerations:

  • Anxiety and stress: People with ADHD often find themselves overwhelmed by anxiety and stress. Stimming behaviors such as fidgeting or leg shaking can be a subconscious way to manage these emotions.
  • Boredom: In situations where someone with ADHD is not mentally stimulated or engaged, stimming might act as a method to self-soothe or maintain focus.
  • Excitement: Positive emotions like excitement can also initiate stimming behaviors. It could be a way to express or manage overflowing enthusiasm or happiness.
  • Sensory overstimulation: Loud noises, bright lights, or crowded spaces can overstimulate the senses, causing people with ADHD to stim to modulate sensory input.
  • Desire for focus: Stimming can sometimes be a way to sustain focus during tasks that require concentration, helping to channel restless energy.
  • Changes and transitions: Changes in routine or transitioning between activities can be challenging and people may stim as a way to manage the discomfort associated with these changes.

Understanding these triggers is the first step toward managing stimming behaviors effectively. With this knowledge, it’s possible to anticipate potential stimming scenarios and implement supportive strategies, such as adjustments to the environment or the introduction of coping tools, to facilitate better management of these behaviors.

ADHD vs. Autism Stimming

Stimming behaviors, though present in both ADHD and autism, manifest and function differently across these conditions, each aligning with the unique challenges that characterize these conditions.


  • Purpose of regulation: in both ADHD and autism, stimming serves as a regulatory function, helping people manage internal and external stimuli.
  • Common behaviors: Certain stimming behaviors, such as hand-flapping, rocking, and repetitive sounds or words, can be observed in individuals with either condition.


  • Alignment with restlessness (ADHD): with ADHD, stimming often aligns more closely with restlessness and an underlying need for focus and concentration. People with ADHD might use stimming as a tool to channel excess energy, enabling them to engage better with tasks or environments.
  • Managing sensory input (Autism): for autistic people, stimming is more predominantly a mechanism for self-soothing and managing sensory input. It helps in modulating overwhelming sensory experiences, providing a way to cope with the intensity of environmental stimuli.
  • Social aspect: People with ADHD often engage in stimming behaviors to help maintain focus during social interactions, whereas autistic people might find stimming helpful in managing the sensory aspects of social settings, such as noise and lights.
  • Frequency and intensity: the frequency and intensity of stimming behaviors may vary. People with ADHD might display these behaviors intermittently and in alignment with varying attention demands, while those with autism might exhibit stimming more consistently as a part of their daily self-regulation strategies.

Getty image by Maskot

Originally published: October 26, 2023
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