“It feels like holding back something you need to say”: Autistic and Non-Autistic Adults accounts of sensory experiences and stimming

Charlton, Rebecca A; Entecott, Timothy; Belova, Evelina and Nwaordu, Gabrielle. 2021. “It feels like holding back something you need to say”: Autistic and Non-Autistic Adults accounts of sensory experiences and stimming. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 89, 101864. ISSN 1750-9467 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

Background: Restricted repetitive behaviours and sensory sensitivities are core features of autism and have been explored in childhood. However, few studies have examined adult experiences. Autistic adults have begun reframing repetitive behaviours (which often have negative connotations) as “stimming”, and emphasising the benefits of stimming and need for acceptance. Few studies have examined stimming in non-autistic adults.

Method: An online survey examined sensory and stimming experiences of 340 adults (160 with an autism diagnosis, 139 suspected autistic, 41 non-autistic). Group differences were examined on categorical responses. A thematic analysis was performed on open-text responses.

Results: Autistic (diagnosed and suspected) individuals reported greater sensory sensitivity and more stimming than non-autistic adults. Stimming is also performed by some non-autistic adults. Thematic analysis produced three themes. 1) Sensory sensitivity had negative physical, emotional and cognitive effects on individuals. 2) Stimming was a self-regulatory mechanism that allowed for positive and negative emotional expression, and cognitive distraction. 3) Social pressure was a reason for suppressing stimming but this had a negative effect on emotions and cognition.

Conclusions: This study describes the links between sensory sensitivities and stimming behaviours among autistic and non-autistic adults. Autistic adults describe the positive effects of stimming and the negative effect of social pressure to suppress stims, this challenges the prevailing view (largely from studies in childhood) that stimming is a negative behaviour. The views of autistic adults should be incorporated to assure an understanding of associations between sensory sensitivities and stimming, and to understand how stimming may have beneficial effects.

Item Type:


Identification Number (DOI):



Adulthood, autism, repetitive behaviours, sensory sensitivity, stimming, qualitative analysis

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12 September 2021Accepted
20 August 2021Published Online
November 2021Published

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Date Deposited:

13 Sep 2021 14:49

Last Modified:

20 Mar 2023 02:26

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.



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