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Visual Stimming - One of the Reasons why your Aspie child is pulling faces

Stimming is a repetitive behaviour performed by aspergers and autistic children because it "feels good" or calms them. I've covered stimming before (see: What is Stimming and what does it feel like). In today's post, I'm going to cover a very specific type of stimming - visual stimming.

Visual stimming can often confuse parents and lead them in the wrong direction - to optometrists for eye examinations or to other specialists to discuss facial tics. Instead, a few well aimed questions at your child may put the record straight.

My History
When I was a child, I used to engage in visual stimming quite a bit. It wasn't until much later, after I had been doing it increasingly for years, that my mother asked me what was going on. Until that time, I was not aware that when engaging in the activity, I presented anything at all to the outside world.

In reality however, my visual Stimming made me look like I had a very bad squint or like my eyesight was very poor. Accompanying the stimming was a rocking of the head which apparently was very noticeable.

Once I had become aware of how I presented, I gradually did it less and less. These days I hardly do it at all though there are still times when I catch myself doing it subconsciously.

Visual stimming takes a lot of different forms - only some of which are discussed below;

The Squint
In this form of stimming, you half close your eyes and all the lights take on a funny appearance. Sometimes they form stars or smears and sometimes little rainbows appear within the light Tilting your head one way or another would make those those lights "dance".

It was this stimming which worried my mother most and she first brought it to my attention after church where I'd been an altar boy. You can imagine how embarrassing it must have been to have your son, a squinting, rocking altar boy sitting facing the crowd for all to see. In any case, church was a really great place for this form of stimming because there were so many bright lights around.

I also used to do this stim quite a bit in the car at night, when I was younger - obviously not when I was driving. The squint works best in dark surrounds with lots of lights.

The Fade
Unlike the squint which relies on eye closure and head movement, the fade is more of a stare. I found that if you looked very closely at an object, you could get the surrounding areas to fade to grey. It's hard to achieve a complete fadeout because the slightest movement will cause the picture to return. During this form of stimming, your eyes will gradually dry out and become itchy - eventually you find that you have to blink.

The fade presents as a child who seems to be starring, unmoving into empty space. If you find that your child is doing this often, then returning to normal without any readjustment period, then it's possible that he's doing this stim.

Locating Shapes within Patterns
This sort of stimming occurs very frequently when you have tiles on the walls or floor. The child may stare at the tiles and begin to visually draw shapes using the boundaries of the tiles. This particular form of stimming presents as a fascination with tiles but eye movement will vary considerably from one person to another. It may depend on the age of the child - whether or not they need to move the eyes around the borders of the pattern or whether they can do the entire thing in their head

Tracing Shapes.
This presents as a child who looks at objects and revolves the eyes around considerably. What is actually happening here is that the child is following the lines of the object with their eyes. Effectively, they are tracing it. I often find that I go one step further and view the world through a mentally generated wireframe. I'm not sure how this presents in me, but it's probably not a great look - as I tend to do it while walking on busy streets.

Concentrating on Movement
This is probably the most reported form of stimming. There are two types of movement. Movement where an object itself is moving, such as a ball or a spinning object and movement where the movement of the person creates the illusion of movement on objects.

Watching spinning or rolling objects is extremely common in children with all forms of autism. Watching spinning objects is more widely reported though not necessarily because it occurs more frequently. It may simply be that watching a thrown object can appear more natural to the casual observer, while the observation of a spinning object can often cause the autistic child to stare.

Movement by illusion is often accomplished by a rocking of the upper body, a classic autism stim, or by simple movements of the head. Sometimes the child will spin themselves. In more complex forms, the rocking can be combined with watching a spinning object. Note that this isn't purely a visual stim and that the aspie or autistic person may actually derive a lot of pleasure/calm from their own bodily movement.

Dealing with Stimming
I've read some articles which suggest that you should "block your child's view of the objects on which they are stimming". I'm really not a fan of this approach.

Your child will always find things to stim on and blocking an object will simply lead them to a different object - or perhaps even a worse form of stimming. At the very least, it could trigger a meltdown if they can't relax.

Unless the behaviour is causing problems, you shouldn't try to change it.

If you are concerned about how your child presents in class or to his peers, then you might want to videotape his stimming and then replay it for him. In most cases, your child probably isn't aware of how he presents.

Don't accuse your child - or hassle them about the "problem". A "buddy" approach to correction might be more appropriate. Ask your child what he is doing when he acts that way - ask him how it feels and what the effect is like. Perhaps you, your child and his teacher could agree on a particular word or phrase to remind him when he's stimming in class.

I'm sure that there are a lot of other forms of visual stimming and in particular, that there are stims related to colour. I'll try to discuss the affects of colour on aspies in a different post - that's an entire topic on its own.

Stimming is a normal thing which everyone engages in to some extent. It's just that people on the spectrum tend to do it much more frequently. Stimming does not harm the child and may in many cases be beneficial and stress-reducing.

The Blue Ball Machine
One last thing related to this post. If you want to keep your aspie occupied for hours, show them this animated gif. The Blue Ball Machine - it's the ultimate computer stim.


I did almost all of the visual things you talk about, but I don't know if I did them enough to be considered stims. I was a very shy, self-conscious child, so I did everything privately. Do NT children do them also, I wonder. Is the difference between spectrum kids and NT kids just a matter of degree?

Love the Blue Ball Machine. It reminds me of an early computer game that I don't think is available any more. Don't remember the name, but you put parts together to create animated machines. I also get caught up in animated fractals.
Stacia said…
Just found your daughter (5 in Dec.) was diagnosed with Aspergers in May. I am catching up on your posts and enjoying reading things from an Aspie's point of view. It helps. My daughters stims by rubbing her face...under her eyes and around her mouth the most. She also pulls out her hair at night when she seems very overwhelmed. I can't wait to show her the blue ball machine...I'm sure she will love it :-)
Unknown said…
It's so true that you can never fully extinguish a stim of any kind. You can substitute it or assist the individual with autism to regulate it more appropriately but never get rid of it completely.

I'm a behaviourist by trade and cringe when I see people trying to totally erradicate a stim. After all, even us NT's 'stim'- be it clicking retractable biros repeatedly, twisting our hair or tapping our feet continuously.
Anonymous said…
I love the blue ball machine!

Anonymous said…
Thanks Gavin,

This is the most complete discussion of visual stimming I've ever read. I can't wait to hear what you say about color perception.

Just my own NT experience-I loved the blue ball machine for about thirty seconds, but quickly tired of watching it. I'm curious how long someone on the spectrum would enjoy it.
Gavin Bollard said…
My two boys, who are almost always fighting, both stopped fighting and started staring and talking about the blue ball machine.

I came back about an hour later but couldn't get them out of the room without turning the screen off.

Interestingly they'd taken in a huge amount of detail that they could draw and describe a lot of the processes that were occurring in it.
Anonymous said…
Found your blog through your sig at Wrong Planet forum.

My daughter does a lot of those visual stims you mention.

But I just had to comment to say that Blue Ball Machine link is amazing. It was like Heidi was hypnotized by it. She just stared at if for half an hour without moving.
Unknown said…
I just found your webpage and have been enlightened. I have been struggling with my 9 year old son’s stimming. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s about 6 months ago and displays many of the most common stimming activities (hand/finger flipping, facial scrunching, noise making, rocking, pacing, and two new and recent ones – hand clapping and finger nail biting).

Initially, about a year and a half ago he only did the hand/finger flipping and occasionally the facial scrunching. My wife and I (me in particular) tried in vain to get my son to stop the activities. About a year ago his hair started to fall out (Alopecia areata) which is brought on by stress. Since we didn’t know anything about Asperger’s at this point and what stimming was, I now realize that I may have contributed to my son’s stress by attempting to limit his stimming activities. Now that he is stimming more than ever, his hair has grown back, which seems to support your assertions that stimming relieves stress.

What is funny about this, is that the more I read about Asperger’s the more I think (and my wife agrees) that both me and my older son exhibit symptoms, though not as pronounced as my 9 year old. My stimming activity as a child had more to do with reading than physical manifestations (I would grab an encyclopedia and read it cover to cover). However, when I watch the “blue ball machine”, it creates a very strange sensation in my brain, I cannot really describe adequately (I can’t watch it for more than a couple of minutes). I am curios to see how my 9 year old reacts to it.

I am worried that the stimming will completely take over as it has been increasing both in frequency and in different styles (for lack of a better word). I am trying to understand what stimming actually provides for an Aspie and how I can provide an environment that is as stress free as possible. If you can direct me to any other resources or have any advice from your own personal experiences, that would be terrific.

Anonymous said…
Wow. I've done this all my life. I thought everyone did.

(People have also told me I make "weird" faces - and that I stare too much - all my life - I had no idea what they were talking about!)

Thank you for writing and posting this.

Anonymous said…
LOL, the blue ball machine is awesome.
Tina Kane said…
Do you know what can be done with a child who does not answer questions and is nearly non-verbal?
Dyaval said…
blue ball machine makes my head fuzzy :D wish I could download it.
Anonymous said…
Just found this. Great article. Have you come across blinking Visual stimming? Often accompanies other facial stuff I think. Then there's looking at letters to make sure I see all of them and their details why reading. And punctuation at the end of sentences. Not even sure my description makes sense...

But it is exhausting after awhile and causes tension. And I have no idea what to do about it. Maybe I can find a substitute stim?
Anonymous said…
As a child, I used every stimming method listed in your article. Until I read your article moments ago, I had forgotten about all of my stimming practices except one. Reading the article reminded me of how I could make rainbows appear by squinting and changing objects by staring at them.

I have long since abandoned those methods, but I did catch myself beginning to obsessively trace objects about ten years ago. For me, stimming was habitual, and later in life I was able to sublimate that nervous energy which propelled it. My advice to stimmers is to recognize the stim and replace it with an equally stress-decreasing actviity. I understand that all stimming is not habitual; every stimmer does it for his own need/purpose, whether voluntary or involuntary. I can, however, attest to the fact that it was extremely theraputic for me as a child, and it could be very soothing. Sublimation was the key for my stopping it, though.

Thank you for writing this article. I never fully realized that I was part of a much larger group who shared this kind of behavior. I had no help in controlling my stims and had to figure out my own way of dealing wih it. I am sincerely glad to learn that people like you can touch the lives of others like me.
eric76 said…
That Blue Ball Machine is something else.

When I was a kid, I used to like to watch ants.

When I was about two years old, I was at a church picnic and crawled into an ant bed and sat there watching the ants until someone saw where I was and pulled me out of it. I've been told that I was taken to the emergency room because of the massive number of ant bites.

That didn't slow me down much. If I was left alone outside, I would often head straight for the nearest ant bed and stand in it to watch the ants in spite of all the bites.

By the time I was about 8 or 9 I had learned to stand to the side of the ant beds. I got a lot fewer bites that way.

I remember my parents getting upset and hollering at me to get away from the ant bed and then chewing me out while I was picking the ants that I could find off of me.

The Blue Ball Machine reminds me of the time I would spend watching the ants, but without all the bites. The music kind of reminds me of getting chewed out, though.
AD said…
Has anyone heard of stim'ing by flicking the eyes back and forth horizontally? My son does this alot. Just thinking about it tonight and not sure if its a tic.
thanks AD
Anonymous said…
My daughter stims a lot. She calls it her powers. She locks it away during school and when she gets home she unlocks it and goes crazy. She hides away in her room and crosses her eyes and flaps her hands fast infront of her eyes and stands on her toes. She will do this and run back and forth in her room for hours then she will relax for alittle.
Unknown said…
I did the squinting, tracing patterns etc. but one I did often that you haven't mentioned is go cross-eyed so as to see two of something - push them apart as far as your eye muscles will allow and then, allow them to come back slowly and in a controlled way, merge back into one item again. Love it. Combine it with hand flapping and walking on your tippy toes and you've got enough entertainment to keep you going all Saturday night. :)
Anonymous said…
my kid looks up and his eyes dart side to side or when its too bright..i wonder if that is stimming..i try to turn down the light or just distract him. are you saying that is something i shouldn't be it stimming?
Unknown said…
Good evening;

I'm a 20 year old university student and it only recently occured to me to try and google the weord habbit I've been noticing myself do . I've had this for a while and it is always happens unconsciously u til i somehow catch myself doing it . It is what you refer to as tracing shapes . I don't know if i preswnt with any external movements while i trace but I've cUght myself clenching my jaw with every line i draw . By the time i catch myself it will have usually kind of worn me out. Also , a friens caught me continuously raising my eyebrows once but i had bo idea i was doing that and i dont think i was tracing in that instance .

The thing is i have never been diagnosed with asperger's or any other form of autism. I had physical and verbal tics as a kid but I somehow outgrew them over the years ( also never realised that i suddenly stopped until i one day came upon a documentary about tourette's - which i don't have because it's permanent as far as i know -.
Would you happen to have any insight as to what might be going on ?

Thank you for taking the time to read this ; and for posting these informative blogs .

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