Musical Stimming in Autistic Adults
School/Affiliation:Case Western Reserve University
Virtual or In-person:Virtual
Music is a common tool for emotion regulation in the general population. Within the autistic community, the repetitive actions known as “stimming” serve emotion regulation functions. Because music and stimming have similar regulatory effects, and because repetition is a fundamental feature of both phenomena, there is a potential for intersections and interactions between them. The purpose of this instrumental case study was to explore relationships between music, stimming, and emotion regulation within autistic adults. Four participants completed two semi-structured interviews and a two-week period of reflective journaling about their day-to-day music engagement. Their social media posts about their experiences of music and stimming contributed an additional data source.
Thematic coding of the data yielded three themes. Theme 1, Stimming is Essential to Mental Health, included subthemes “defining stimming,” “role in mental health,” and “social pressure to ‘mask.’” Theme 2, Musical Stimming Includes Both Motor and Auditory Repetition, included subthemes “moving repetitively to music” and “repeating music through listening and/or performance.” Theme 3, Emotion Regulation Through Intertwined Sensory and Cognitive Processes included subthemes “sensory emotions versus cognitive feelings,” “directing attention and blocking noise,” “releasing energy and changing mood,” and “expressing feelings and enjoying auditory stimulation.”
These findings support defining musical stimming as an intensified form of music engagement, largely similar to typical self-regulatory music usage but with more extensive repetition and focus on music as sensory input. Alternatively, music could be viewed as a medium for stimming with which autistic and non-autistic people alike regularly engage to varying degrees.