literature

Stimming

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My feet slap the rug again and again as I bounce. Jump, jump, jump. My hands wave up and down in loose fists. Jump, jump, jump. My left arm starts swinging in big circles, around, around, around. My breathing comes heavy and rhythmic. I slow down, pacing counterclockwise. My fingers tap against my thumbs: pointer fingers, middle fingers, ring fingers, little fingers. Little fingers, ring fingers, middle fingers, pointer fingers.
What is this? Just a typical 5-minute writing break.

Stimming is short for self-stimulatory behavior, or behavior designed to stimulate one of your senses. When you rub your forehead, tap your feet, or pace in circles, that's called stimming. On average, autistic people stim more than neurotypical people.



Why Do People Stim?



Reasons for stimming vary based on the circumstances. Here are some reasons why people might stim.
  • Satisfying the need for stimulation (ever pick at grass or threads on your clothes when you're bored?)
  • Self-soothing (like rubbing one's forehead)
  • Emotional regulation and self-control (like flapping hands to keep calm and stave off a meltdown)
  • Preventing sensory overload (by providing rhythmic sensory input and focusing on it)
  • Who the heck knows? (I have no clue why I pace all the time when I'm working on a big idea. I just do.)

It's important to note that while everyone stims in some way or another, stimming is more important to autistic people in general. While sometimes stimming is optional or fun, other time's it's important or even necessary in order to feel good and pay attention. Usually I need one or two forms of stimulation (deep pressure, familiar music, an exercise ball to bounce on) in order to focus on something.

Stimming is an essential part of the way autistic people experience the world.

How Does Stimming Feel?



The short answer is "it depends on the stim." To help you visualize, I'll describe some of my own experiences.
  • Casually instinctive—fidgeting with a pencil, twirling hair, rocking—you don't even realize you're doing it.
  • Focusing help—rocking, pacing, saying numbers out loud while doing math in one's head
  • Irrepressible urge
  • Communication—repeating a TV quote that's relevant to the situation, for instance
  • Expressing emotion—flapping hands when excited, rocking when anxious, etc.

Stimming usually feels good, sharpening the mind and aiding emotion and focus. It feels good, like scratching an itch or hugging a warm person when you're cold. Other times it can be less pleasant, like spinning around until you're dizzy or flapping your hands until your wrists hurt.

In fact, I'm bouncing on an exercise ball as I type this, bouncing and flapping my arms as I reread my work.

Ways to Stim



Check out the list and consider what your autistic character might do.

Consider patterns. For example, Autistic Audrey might flap her hands when she's happy, rock while thinking, spin things or tap fingers when bored, hug herself when stressed/overwhelmed, and sing sometimes just for the fun of it.
  • Spinning
  • Flapping hands
  • Playing with a fidget toy (slinky, koosh ball, tangle, etc.)
  • Ripping paper
  • Reaching out to touch unusual textures
  • Rocking
  • Tapping feet
  • Drumming fingers/tapping pencils
  • Tapping on surfaces or collarbone
  • Applying deep pressure to one's body by hugging oneself
  • Wrapping up tightly in blankets
  • Wearing tight clothing
  • Placing heavy things on one's body
  • Stretching/contorting the hands, limbs, or neck
  • Clenching fists/pressing fingernails into hands
  • Shaking limbs
  • Echolalia (can be a stim or communication)
  • Humming/singing
  • Pacing
  • Running around and jumping
  • Bouncing/swaying
  • Swinging
  • Putting on socks and sliding on wooden floors (as opposed to walking like a normal person. So much fun!)
  • Chewing gum
  • Curling one's toes
  • Listening to the same song on repeat
  • Flapping clothing or blankets to feel the air
There are many more ways to stim! This is just the beginning. Feel free to give your character stims that aren't mentioned here.

Stim Toys


Stim toys, also known as fidget toys, are objects made for fidgeting. They can increase concentration and self-control. To see some of the variety, you can visit the Fun and Function website, or Stimtastic (which supports the autistic community).

It is impossible to list everything that could be considered a stim toy. Here are some of the ones I use:
  • Beanbags (from finger-sized to lap-sized)
  • "Sea urchin" toys
  • Stress balls
  • Beaded bracelets (I like medium-sized, smooth round beads, with tiny beads as spacers in between)
  • Exercise balls as chairs
  • Swivel chairs
  • Lollipops and gum
  • Tangles
Anything can be used as a stim toy. Maybe Autistic Audrey likes to rub against a textured wall, fidget with a keychain, or repetitively run her hands through her girlfriend's cornrows. (A favorite person makes a very loving stim toy.)

Consider picking out a few favorite stim toys for your character.



Harmful Stims


Self-injurious stims usually happen for one of two reasons:
  1. Severe distress. Autistic Audrey is having a meltdown, everything feels awful, and in her panic she howls and pulls at her hair.
  2. Bad habits. Audrey bites her nails when she is bored/understimulated.
These stims identify a need for sensory stimulation. Thus, it's possible to meet these needs in a way that doesn't cause damage.
  • Scratching—to prevent damage, only scratch areas covered in cloth, such as a beanie on the head or sweatpants on the legs
  • Biting nails—putting gum/chewy jewelry/lollipops in the mouth, touching rough textures with the hand
  • Picking or pulling hair or skin—best replaced by picking/pulling at something else, like a koosh ball
  • Biting oneself—biting a chewy bracelet/necklace, chewing gum, or sucking on a lollipop
  • Sitting on one's feet (knee pain... so much knee pain)—squishing a pillow between body and edge of table for deep pressure, weighted lap pad; I'm really struggling with this bad habit
  • Hitting one's head—can be replaced by rapidly shaking their head, applying deep pressure, or hitting their head against a couch cushion or the back of a rocking chair (which will move, preventing serious damage)

Redirecting stims isn't easy. Sometimes it's very difficult. You fail a lot. It can be especially hard when you don't even realize that you've started doing it

Self-Injurious Behavior (SIB) often comes as a result of severe frustration or understimulation. Others can help by being respectful, not pushing too hard, avoiding abuse, and honoring all attempts at communication. An autistic person can minimize their own SIB by learning to understand their own triggers and limits, and by leaving as soon as they begin to feel overwhelmed.

Reducing your own self injury


Your autistic character doesn't like hurting themselves. It's not fun when it happens, and the aftermath isn't exactly comfortable either.

Here are some strategies your character may use or learn to use:
  • Take a break when stress is building up. Toughing out out makes it worse. (I have learned this from experience.)
  • Stop trying so hard to pass as non-autistic. (More on passing later.)
  • Redirect with a non-harmful stim that fulfills the same need.
  • Focus on harm reduction. For example, placing a cushion in between their legs and their hands when they hit their legs.
  • Pack comforting objects, such as stim toys they can use to redirect self-injury, when they leave the house.
  • Pay closer attention to what triggers the behavior, and when they start doing it, so they can redirect right away.

Unhelpful responses from others


It can be unsettling or scary to see someone hurting themselves. Not everyone knows how to deal with this. Here are some unhelpful ways people might react:
  • Telling them they can't do it. (They are doing it right now. So "you can't bite yourself" is clearly a lie.)
  • Punishing the person for self injury.
  • Yelling at them, or otherwise further stressing the autistic person. This will make it worse.
The more stressful the situation gets, the more likely the autistic person will keep self-injuring in an attempt to cope.

Positive responses from others


"When he wants to bang his head, now, he grabs my hands and I squeeze at his ears until he can breathe again. He puts his hands on my head and does the same for me." Julia Bascom
Stopping a harmful stim can be difficult for an autistic person to do all on their own. Sometimes, it helps to have another person to assist in redirecting or self-care.
  • Offering a barrier (e.g. holding out a cushion to someone who is head-banging)
  • Reminding children why this stim is harmful, such as "you're hurting your head."
  • Helping with an alternative stim, such as offering a deep pressure massage when someone is hitting, or offering a piece of chewy jewelry and a fidget toy to someone who is biting their nails.
Young children don't always realize the consequences of self-injury. Thus, it's important that parents say no (so the kids learn that it's bad) and help redirect to a non-harmful stim. Older children, teens, and adults usually know that self-injury is bad; they're just so overwhelmed they don't know how else to cope.



Hiding Stims



It is sometimes possible to suppress stimming.

But it can feel a lot like trying to put a lid on a pot of boiling water. Maybe, to an outsider, it looks calm for now. But one way or another, it's got to come out.

Why does it happen?


Perhaps you think it's cute and quirky when Autistic Audrey flaps her hands in delight. But that doesn't mean that everyone else agrees with you.
"Hand-flapping, rocking, and so forth are dramatic, and they work really well for some autistic people, but the very fact that they are so dramatic probably makes a lot of us suppress them lest we get in trouble … so it’s worthwhile to be aware of other stims that people might use." Packbat
Autistic people, just like non-autistics, have some degree of caring about what other people think. Autistic kids want to make their parents proud. All of us want to be thought of as good, to be liked, to be seen as fully human.

So, when other people disapprove of our stimming, we might decide to hide it.

The problem? Stimming is important for our functioning. We often have to do it in some form or another. Suppressing our basic instincts isn't exactly easy, either, so sitting like a statue is likely to leave someone tense and focused on sitting still (rather than paying attention to anything around them, like someone talking or a book to read).

And spending your life hiding who you are... well, it doesn't make you truly feel less alone.

Abusive therapy


Disturbing content. Feel free to skip this section. No, seriously, I mean it.

Some compliance-based therapies seek to force an autistic person (often a child) to look as "normal" as possible.

These therapies often involve physically forcing an autistic person to stop moving. For example, "Quiet Hands" involves slamming someone's hands down and holding them there for a few seconds, until the person automatically becomes still when told "Quiet Hands." This can be done to children as young as preschool-age (3 or 4).

People who have undergone this treatment may end up very fearful, experiencing panic attacks or other signs of PTSD.

If you want to learn more about how this works, read this poem and this in-depth article. I don't want to write too much about the details, because I get too upset.



Responses to Stimming



Depending on different characters' acceptance of others and education about autism, they may respond differently to your character's stimming. Here are some potential responses.

Parents of young children tend to respond poorly to stimming, perhaps because they don't yet know that autism is not a sentence of lifelong despair.

Bad Responses (Meaning Well)


Autistic Audrey has two friends, Bob and Carol. Maybe they don't quite understand why she's different, and they don't accept it. Here are some less-than-fantastic responses.

Bob: Don't do that, Audrey! People will think you're different.
Audrey: ...but I am different?
Carol: Audrey, don't put your pen in your mouth! It's got germs all over it. Give me that.
Audrey: but... that's mine...
Bob: Aren't you going to grow out of this?
Audrey: What, autism?
Carol: Let's find a way for your to look less autistic.
Audrey: Um...
Bob and Carol don't mean to be rude to Audrey, but that's what they're doing when they dismiss her stimming. Audrey will end up feeling alienated, and not accepted for who she is.

Bad Responses (Not Meaning Well)


Let's imagine that Audrey meets Dave. Dave isn't a fun guy. He's kind of a jerk. And he doesn't get why Audrey rocks or flaps her hands.

And Audrey? Well, let's say that the snark is strong with this one, and she can hold her own.
Dave: What's your problem?
Audrey: The fact that apparently I can't eat in peace.
Dave: (stares)
Audrey: (stares back)
Dave: What are you, r*tarded?
Audrey: I prefer the term autistic.
Dave: Why are you doing that? Act normal!
Audrey: Last I checked, people were allowed to be themselves.

Good Responses


Now let's imagine that Bob and Carol are kind and understanding people, who know how to show it. Here are some ways they could respond to Audrey.

They can act like nothing is out of the ordinary.
Carol: Let's divide up the slides. Who wants to work on what part?
Audrey: (rocking and staring at the ceiling)
Bob: I'll take the intro.
Carol: I'd like to discuss the methods of the study. Audrey, is there a part you want to do?
Audrey: (still rocking and staring at ceiling) Yes, the discussion. I have some ideas for it already.
Carol: Awesome. Dave didn't show up, so he'll do the results.

They can respond to Audrey's emotions.
Audrey: (spinning, flicking her fingers and giggling)
Bob: I take it your date went well?
Audrey: YES
Audrey: (covering her ears, swaying from side to side, and emitting a very high-pitched whine)
Carol: Dave, stop banging pots and pans together! You're hurting Audrey!
Dave: Freedom of speech! You can't infringe my rights!
Carol: Um, let's go outside, Audrey

They can help her find alternative stims if she's doing something harmful.
Carol: You're chewing on your pen again. You told me last week you were trying to quit that. Want some gum instead?
Audrey: (howling and hitting the top of her head)
Bob: Audrey, I'm worried about you hitting yourself! My couch is basically indestructible; why don't you hit it instead?
When people respond this way to Audrey, she feels like she can be herself around them. She isn't judged, or being treated like a baby, just because she looks and acts different. Instead she has conversations with them as an equal.

Constructive responses can show that a character is understanding, kind, and knowledgeable. They're more likely to come from a person who (a) knows the autistic person, (b) is autistic themselves, or (c) knows another autistic person. But anyone is capable of being kind to an autistic person.

Consider how your different characters might respond to the autistic person, and how that reflects on them and their relationship with the autistic person.

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Cutiesaurs's avatar
I usually stem when I’m excited or think