Another aspect of Autism that’s been pathologised to the point of head-shaking (from the Autistic community) is that of stimming.
The word stimming comes from the oddly disreputable-sounding “self-stimulating behaviour”, and is described in the diagnostic criteria as “Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypes, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases)”.
Some of the most stereotypical images of Autism include stimming behaviour – hand flapping, spinning in circles, head-banging or other potentially injurious behaviours, but most adult Autistics will agree that they have stims, but in the most part have learned how to hide them.
Everybody stims, though; it’s not a solely Autistic thing. Finger tapping, clicking a pen, tapping feet, clearing a throat nervously – these are all examples of stims. Several articles seem to suggest that the difference between Autistic stimming and allistic stimming is one of intensity; and in particular, whether it interferes in your everyday life. Yeah, I kinda reject that. Not everyone who’s Autistic stims in a way that is obvious or intrusive. I don’t, unless you know what you’re looking for.
So what *is* the difference?
Yeah, nah. I have no idea. “It just is” – or something like that.
I am going to explore it a bit, though…
First, stims happen much more often for both Autistic and allistic people when experiencing heightened emotions. Elation (jumping up and down) or anxiety (chewing nails or needing to pace), anger (drumming fingers or tapping feet), even deep thought (fiddling absently with hair or objects in our hands) elicit stims from Autistic and allistic alike. But emotions are strong and deep for many Autists; it seems that many of us have a strong “Aha!” moment when we first hear about the Intense World Theory.
Essentially, this suggests that Autistic brains have everything turned up to 11.
While there are a number of significant issues with the way the author of the original “Intense World” article has interpreted the data and even more with the dodgy recommendations they make, the concept of the world being experienced too intensely is one that resonates with a lot of Autistic people.
Stimming can help reduce that “world too loud” feeling by giving the Autist another focus, and help regulate emotions and responses to this sensory overload. One of the concerns expressed about behavioural therapies aimed to reduce obvious expressions of Autisticness in children is that stims are perceived as ‘different’, as a threat to ‘passing’. Suppression of stimming can lead to emotional dysregulation, and this in turn is treated as ‘behaviour to be managed’. It is little wonder that so many adult Autistics are opposed to these types of therapies.
Different stims may well be used for different purposes, too. I’d never thought about that before this blog, but in writing it out, I came to realise that my own personal stims are ‘tells’ – what I’m doing says a lot about how I’m feeling. So, not having much to hide, I’ll share my ‘tells’ with you.
First, a confession.
I sucked my thumb til I was nearly 12, and only forced myself to stop because I was leaving primary school, and didn’t want to be ridiculed.
Now, I still touch my lips lightly with my fingers. The lips are very sensitive, and I find great comfort in that sensation. If I’m really unwell or depressed, I’ll even touch my thumb to my lips, which has the effect of relaxing me immediately.
When I’m excited or anxious, I shake my hands as if I’m shaking water off them, or like an athlete warming up before a race. I never realised that was actually ‘flapping’ until the psychologist who diagnosed me pointed it out. The effect of this is to siphon off excess energy, which is being created by the emotional intensity I’m feeling. When a feeling wells up so much I feel like it’ll explode out of me, strong rapid movements like this use up that kind of energy, and allow me to self-regulate.
“Piano fingers” – moving the fingers of both hands as if I’m playing scales or pieces – helps me to focus when I’m struggling with distraction or perseverative thoughts. The movement seems to “peg down” my thoughts a bit, by using a part of my brain to do something else, drawing my attention to my body rather than my thoughts.
When I’m frustrated or angry, I’ll often tap my feet inside my shoes. I’m more likely to be unable to voice words when I’m frustrated, which is partly because I don’t want to get into a row, and partly because there’s so much going on in my head that it’d take an hour or more to say what’s circling, so it’s better not to say anything at all. If I can’t form words, or if I’m struggling to retain my temper, tapping my foot is like an alternative to voicing that frustration.
And when I was in deep despair, three times in my life – as a teenager, after my first child (when I had PND), and during the first couple of weeks of my burnout nearly three years ago – I sought stronger sensations, to cut through the blankness and fog of suppressed emotion. I understand why people ‘cut’, bang their heads, bite themselves. It’s a way of reaching for the powerful sensations I’m used to feeling when the whole world has been dulled into grey and sepia.
But there are other stims that are just for the pure joy of sensations.
Until recently, I owned a long black cotton-knit cardigan. I have no idea where it’s disappeared to now, and that is a very sad thing. I used to run this between my fingers. The material was soft, the cotton cool and the movement was smooth against my fingers. I have fallen in love with heavy satin brocades for their heavy crispness, spiked metal plate for the contrast of sharp and smooth, and the worn-smooth bumpiness of mallee root wood, and the spikiness of a straw broom. Running my hands along something that I find satisfying and beautiful to touch can take up my whole consciousness – absolutely present in that moment and that touch, with nothing else intruding on the sensory moment.
Which sensations people love in this way varies wildly. Many people love minky blankets for their soft smoothness, but they feel highly uncomfortable to me. Other people dislike spikiness or sharpness, but these sensations give pinpoint precision to a touch. When you add a level of synaesthesia to your world, stimming can be expanded even further. I love zig-zag patterns and prime numbers – these have the same spikiness as the broom for me. A friend loves circles, spheres, and the number 8, which is congruent for me as 8 feels like spheres – smooth, rounded. Even brusqueness and acerbity in a personality has the same strong, sharp quality as a mature cheese or a darning needle.
What are your stims? What sensations do you love?
One thought on “Autism Acceptance Month – Day 11”
Washing rice (before you cook it) ( such a soothing sensation). A hot washer on the face. The smell of tea leaves.