Stimming vs. Tics: What's the Difference?

Stimming vs. Tics: What's the Difference?

Stimming and tics are distinct physical behaviors often associated with neurological disorders. They are very similar in appearance, but have different purposes and causes behind them. Stimming, or self-stimulatory behavior, is a type of repetitive behavior that is engaged as a way of self-soothing while tics are sudden and involuntary.

It can be hard to tell at first glance whether a child is stimming or experiencing tics, so it’s important to understand the difference to provide the best possible support and care. 

What Is Stimming?

Stimming has everything to do with sensory input. This action refers to a repetitive movement or sound that helps to self-soothe and regulate a sensory experience. Stimming is often associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Children and adults with autism stim to deal with sensory overload, cope in times of stress, or express emotion. Stimming can look like a wide variety of things and varies from person to person, but some of the most common stimming behaviors are flapping, body rocking, hair twisting, tapping, or vocalizing. 

Stimming can also be a means of communication, especially for those with autism. It is a nonverbal way to express happiness, excitement, frustration, or discomfort. Stimming mixed with facial expressions can express feelings through cues without using words. 

Stimming is also something that tends to occur when predictable routines are broken. Individuals and children with autism often rely on routines and patterns in their day, so the added level of stress that accompanies a shift in routine can lead to increased stimming behaviors.

Acceptance and support for stimming can contribute to a positive environment that respects and accommodates the unique needs of individuals with autism.

What Are Tics?

Tics are also repetitive movements, but they are more sudden and involuntary. There are two common kinds of tics: motor and vocal. Motor tics can be rapid blinking, head jerking, facial grimacing, head banging, or hand/arm movements. Vocal tics can be grunting, coughing, throat clearing, or even the use of inappropriate language which is referred to as coprolalia

While tics are most commonly associated with neurological conditions such as Tourette’s syndrome, children with autism can experience them as well. The causes of tics aren’t always clear, but can potentially include genetics, environmental factors, and neurological factors. 

Stress, anxiety, fatigue, and heightened emotions usually worsen tics for those who experience them, but they can also occur haphazardly. Most of the time, an individual can feel a tic coming on, but it has been described as a build-up of tension that is released involuntarily.

How Are Stimming and Tics Different?

Stimming is a way to cope and help regulate emotions, and therefore provides a sense of stress relief and calming. Tics don’t necessarily calm someone down but can be compared to a sneeze, where the person can feel it coming on and can’t stop it for long. 

Stimming typically has a specific function and can be anticipated in times of high stress or change in routine. They serve a purpose to help calm one’s nervous system, whereas tics do not have a set purpose behind them.

In general, stimming tends to be more socially accepted than tics. Many stimming behaviors are harmless and mild, and some can even go unnoticed if you’re not looking for them. Those who understand stimming empathize with the nature of the behavior and understand that it is due to a sense of overwhelm. However, tics are more random and can be loud or disruptive without a visible reason, so they may come with judgment and less understanding.

One of the biggest differences is how these behaviors are managed. When managing stimming, interventions are typically focused on spreading awareness and acceptance. At times, alternative coping mechanisms are practiced, but stimming is usually not something people try to prevent. 

Tics, on the other hand, people often try to stop and treat. This can involve behavior interventions, targeted intervention for the conditions causing tics, and possible medication. Understanding the difference between stimming and tics is crucial for understanding and choosing a treatment path.

How Can Parents and Caregivers Respond to Stimming and Tics?

For children with autism, stimming is a natural, typically harmless occurrence. There are times when stimming can be disruptive or can lead to unintentional self-harm, which makes it crucial to understand and spread awareness about stimming.

The first step here is to understand and accept these behaviors yourself. Remaining educated will help to end the stigma and spread awareness to others. Parents and caregivers can start to observe patterns and triggers that lead to increased stimming and tics. When these patterns are observed, support and intervention can occur.

Make sure your little one has a safe space where they feel comfortable expressing themselves and dealing with their stimming or tics without judgment. Sensory toys and tools can provide outlets for sensory needs, like fidget toys, textured toys, or weighted objects. Keeping these on hand can help regulate senses and provide a sense of calm similar to stimming. 

If you’re planning to offer alternative coping mechanisms, make sure you go about this with a sense of understanding. You can introduce alternatives while still allowing and encouraging the naturally chosen methods of self-regulation. It’s all about a balance — these behaviors do not just stop or change overnight. 

As a parent or caregiver, the most important role you have is to advocate and teach self-advocacy to your child. Help family and friends understand what is happening when they observe stimming or tics and model acceptance and empathy. 

Always remain calm as best you can, even if these situations cause stress, and remember that you are your child’s biggest supporter. If you sense that they are being judged or misunderstood, remember that they can sense it as well. Remove them from the environment and find somewhere safe for them to be themselves. 

Be consistent with your support, understanding, and guidance. Stimming and tics can be embarrassing for the individual experiencing them, but they shouldn’t be. Let your child know that you are there for them and that these behaviors don’t bother you at all.

How Can Big Heart Toys Help?

While parenting a child with autism, Big Heart Toys provides a sense of community. Our blog can provide the knowledge and power to understand, spread awareness, and give helpful tips on parenting children with autism.

Big Heart Toys’ sensory toys for autism can fill in the gaps while waiting for professional resources. They provide a platform for sensory engagement and exploration, which aids in self-regulation and provides a calming effect.

Certain toys and games can be used to model social interactions and behaviors. Cooperative play can encourage turn-taking and sharing, for example, while books can directly model social situations and enhance language skills. 

Giving this power to children with autism can boost their confidence and decrease the stress that they feel in social settings, which can decrease the tendencies of stimming and tics. 

The Bottom Line

Understanding and supporting children with autism involves acceptance, education, and access to appropriate resources. Stimming and tics are natural aspects of neurodivergent experiences and can be addressed with empathy and strategies that recognize individual needs.

Parents and caregivers play the biggest role in creating a supportive environment. By embracing acceptance, observing patterns, and providing safe spaces, we can foster an environment where stimming and tics are understood and accepted. 

Sensory toys and resources, like those offered by Big Heart Toys, can be powerful tools in raising children with autism. They provide access to supportive tools, help model behavior through play, and offer educational insights. 

Embrace the uniqueness of your little one. Celebrate their strengths, and continue creating a nurturing environment that promotes growth and well-being. Remember that every step you take in understanding and advocating for your child contributes to their success.

For more insights on understanding and supporting children with autism, explore our other blogs. Explore our products for a range of helpful sensory toys carefully designed to aid in the development and comfort of children with autism. Together, let's continue to create environments that empower and celebrate the diverse experiences of those with autism.


How to Tame Your Sensory Seeker | NAPA Center

Why is Routine so Important to People with Autism & ASD | ABA

Coprolalia | StatPearls | NCBI Bookshelf

Tics | Treatment | NHS

Supplemental Information for Autism | Self-Stimulating Behaviors or "Stimming" as Coping | BCM

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