This post is part of my april autism series for autism acceptance month. Visit the first post here for links to the rest of the series!
Before we began Rondel’s diagnostic process, I had never heard the words “stim” or “stimming” – so I’ll assume it’s new to a lot of you as well.
“When we feel an emotion or a collection of emotions very powerfully, stimming can help us manage these feelings without overloading. Often emotions like sadness, anger, or anxiety will prompt stimming as a way to both experience these less pleasant emotions while also keeping our cool.” – The Stimming Checklist
Essentially, a stim is a behavior that provides sensory, social, or emotional regulation to a person. Some of the most familiar (or stereotyped) stims among autistic people are hand flapping, rocking, and head banging – but to stop at those would be extremely limited and inaccurate. The Stimming Checklist has accumulated over 1400 different stims from user submissions (although some are essentially repeats as people submitted different wordings of the same behavior, there are still a lot), just to give you an idea of the diversity and range of stimming behavior! They also give a more detailed description of what stimming is and why people may stim, including the above quote about stimming for emotional regulation.
My most reliable stim is skin picking. It can be embarrassing at times, since my upper arm is dotted with scars and scabs, but in the moment it is less noticeable than something like hand flapping (or running away screaming, lol), so I keep doing it. The sensation of it helps to alleviate almost any kind of tension, and also helps me stay focused on something if my thoughts are wandering (maybe by occupying the part of my brain that would otherwise be distracting me!). For example, if people around me (or even in a movie) are arguing and saying hurtful things, even if they are sarcastic or joking, I will start to pick to help calm down my physical reaction to the emotional turmoil I’m sensing around me. On the other hand, I’ll also pick if I’m bored and can’t do anything because I’m stuck waiting somewhere.
Hand flapping and deep breaths with loud exhales are stress-reducing in the way that pushing down the valve of a pressure cooker reduces the internal pressure – they cut out a lot of tension very rapidly but in a very dramatic manner – and I tend to only stim that way in the privacy of my own home. In class or other lecture-type environments, I write (notes, thoughts, or the alphabet), calculate irrational square roots by hand, draw geometric designs on grids, play games on my phone or laptop, or else generally become unable to sit still or pay attention due to my mind wandering off into some far off land and my physical tension steadily rising.
While stimming behaviors may appear strange or odd on the surface, therefore, it is important to understand that they can play a significant role in the life of an autistic person, as I am hardly a unique or extreme example. Trying to force someone to stop stimming altogether is going to be harmful in the long run: it will deny them access to some of their coping strategies for sensory overwhelm or emotional stress, and force them to spend significant amounts of energy and focus on holding in their stims at the expense of other things.
“If anything, stimming improves my concentration. It’s a release, like sneezing or scratching an itch. Have you ever tried to ignore an itch? What if someone told you it was wrong to scratch yourself to relieve an itch? What would that do for your concentration?” – Cynthia Kim, Musings of an Aspie
However, not all specific stims are healthy, no matter how helpful they may be in the moment. My skin picking certainly falls into this category, as does any other self-injurious stim. In these cases it is worth the effort to find a replacement stim, if at all possible (I haven’t found one for myself yet), and it is emphatically better to consciously redirect towards a positive replacement stim than to simply try to eliminate the damaging one. Without that deliberate replacement, it is likely that an equally unhealthy stim will take over instead (for example, I tried to stop picking my arm last year and ended up creating sores all over my legs. Not helpful at all, that.) So if I ever figure out a good strategy for finding a replacement and making it stick, I’ll be sure to update you…
Do you stim? What do you do and why? Does someone you know? What do you think about it? It’s ok if it seems weird 🙂 – I sometimes think my own stims are weird even though I know why I do them and how it helps me!