Firstly, sorry for the inactivity lately – I have had a lot on adjusting to returning to university, and with that comes of course the increased workload! That often leads to stress that needs to be offloaded somehow, hence what has inspired today’s topic – stimming.
As human beings, we all have ways of coping with the world around. Some people vent to people, others cry alone or scream into a pillow. Then there are people like me on the spectrum, and one of the ways that some of us destress is through stimming. This post will be primarily written from my own viewpoint; however, it is worth noting that other ASD people stim as well and this shows differently from person to person. Hence why it is also written in a way that states other ASD people may exhibit similar stimming behaviour.
Before we continue, I am going to define stimming as best as I can. It is a coping mechanism and can show in many ways. One example is flapping where somebody moves their arms up and down. Another is rocking, which is where you move the upper half of your body back and forth. Other examples include spinning, repetitively feeling fabric and other similar materials, jumping up and down (whether sitting down or standing up prior) groaning, blinking repetitively, snapping fingers and screeching.
A lot of the time when an autistic person stims, it is usually for one of a few reasons:
It is a way of destressing after a day of socialising or “acting NT” in a world that can be hostile to anything that deviates from the norm.
Think of it from the perspective of an introvert’s social battery. An introvert has a long day at work/school/socialising and needs to recharge their batteries, doing something by themselves to recharge their social battery. Well it is the same here. Stimming is another way of recharging their social batteries. I am not 100% sure if it applies to extroverted autistics as well however I would imagine if the situations were very demanding on the ASD person it likely wouldn’t matter (if anyone would like to chime in the comments section, please do). Often this is done in their own home or private space (ie. bedroom) where they are unlikely to be disturbed. The length and loudness may vary especially after a whole day at work/socialising.
The autistic person’s social battery is starting to wear down from interaction.
This refers to stimming that happens during social interaction. The longer the ASD person is exposed to the social environment, the more the social exhaustion increases. The stimming can be channelled or delayed through distractions (ie. by using a screen-based device, listening to music, fiddling with items to provide stimulation like fidget cubes) but it cannot be halted. This is where subtle stimming can show, for example rocking.
The autistic person is stressed about something.
Stress can be intense on somebody that feels too much empathy or is overwhelmed by the situation at hand. So much so that it starts to affect other areas of their lives. One effect of this is stimming and often the only way to help reduce this kind of stimming is to deal with the source of the stress. This is easier said than done in many cases especially those outside the immediate family’s control. Some examples that come to mind of sources include peers, the healthcare system and the workplace.
It helpes ease the impact of sensory overload and anxiety.
Sensory overload is common with autistic people. The feeling of a familiar surface (ie. soft textures, the outside of a fidget cube) can provide comfort against the onslaught of unfamiliar stimuli or overwhelming sounds, smells etc. This also applies to anxiety. Soft textures can greatly help with anxiety. To add some personal experience, soft textures including soft toys have helped me manage overload and anxiety over the years. I still have many of the plushies/fabrics I have built up over time.
If it is none of the above and/or there is something positive in the environment, it may mean that they feel comfortable around you, whether it is shown explicitly or not.
Trust is something that is earned, not given. Respect works the same way. Stimming is a very intimate aspect of an autistic person which has often been forcibly suppressed due to external negativity. Over time the message that “you can’t act like that in public (referring to stimming behaviour)” is often internalised and, combined with social isolation and peer rejection, the urge to stim can be repressed until they are in what they see a safe place, such as their own home.
Often only close family or family friends will ever see an ASD person stimming so if you are given an audience to an ASD person stimming, it may suggest that they feel comfortable around you and that they trust you. That is a very special position to be in, so don’t break the trust. You don’t know how much energy it took for them to trust you, even if they aren’t consciously aware of it yet. This is definitely the case if somebody breaks the trust and bullies/ridicules the ASD person for stimming – being themselves.
Some extra points:
It can be voluntary or involuntary.
The ASD individual may not even be aware they are doing it at times. However sometimes it may be a conscious choice to do it or urged by their mind/body, such as after a mentally exhausting event. It may also be something that needs to be done to help with executive functioning as not doing so risks the stress showing in other ways (ie. involuntary aggression).
Accommodations may be required.
These may be required to help with stimming. One example that comes to mind from my experience is having to put a bit of money aside to accommodate for any breakages that occur. I have broken multiple chairs and toilet seats over the years from stimming on them and weakening the structure without knowing it. Other examples of accommodations include using a music player with earbuds to block out unwanted stimuli, clearing some space in a room to minimise obstructions as well as buying more durable furniture that can withstand forces outside neurotypical use (like stimming while sitting down on a wooden chair).
It’s part of an ASD person’s identity.
This is much like other neurological conditions, physical appearance, personality traits etc. Therefore to truly accept an autistic individual you will need to accept that they may also stim too. Some autistic people may not stim at all – it depends on the person. Not everyone will be able to accept stimming, but those that do may be very special people indeed. Family/friends that don’t accept an autistic person’s stimming are not worth being around, as it is likely that that they haven’t accepted other aspects of them too.
Self-acceptance on the part of the ASD individual is also important.
This is much easier said than done especially if the environment around the ASD person isn’t supportive. To those ASD people whom are struggling with this I have a few words to say – it’s okay to be different from what society sees as “normal”. It is part of who you are. It is something that takes time to accept and when you have accepted it, that aspect of your life is at peace. One of many parts of your life you have been given to live.
That’s all for today – take care everyone!