Stimulating Topics of Conversation

Today was a long, exhausting day working at summer camp. It was, as some people are wont to say, “a stimmy day”. So that’s the topic of today’s blogging.

One of the complaints I read about on some parenting boards is “the stimming problem”, when a child engages in self-stimulatory behaviours. (No, I don’t mean masturbating, although that could be a stim; we’re referring to finger-fiddly activities, whole body activities like jumping, rocking, spinning, and so on.)

Many people act as though autism is cause of stimming. This isn’t quite true; stereotypical stimming behaviours are associated with autism. Rather, stress is the main cause. Stimming is nothing more than a more focused version of someone else’s “nervous habit”. Various stimming behaviors can be beneficial stress-coping mechanisms, assuming they’re not self-injurious.

We should note that stimming activities are things that EVERYONE does. People smoke, or fiddle with their hair, or stroke mustaches and beards, or spin wedding bands around their fingers, or chew gum, or bite pencils, or repeatedly click ballpoint pens, or fiddle with pocket change, or mangle paperclips, or count rosary beads, or slide necklaces, or play with earrings, or crack knuckles, or doodle on page margins, or stare out the window, or pace, or endlessly swizzle mixed drinks with decorative stirrers … you know, all those stereotypies that neurotypical people engage in.

The only difference is the type of activity. Those previous things are “normal” whereas autistic stimming things are “not-normal”. But how can something be “abnormal” when millions of autistic people do it? Then again, I bet a lot of those so-called “normal” behaviours are done by ADHD people leaking hyperactivity around the edges in a socially-acceptable manner.

I’m prone to “swaying” or rocking from side to side. I’ve been doing it for over forty years. My husband has finally resigned himself to the fact that if I stand and talk for more than a few minutes, I’m likely to start up. (It was camouflaged when I had tots in my arms, but now they’re in high school and college.) I even rock some while teaching and doing presentations (gasp!) and the world hasn’t come to a screeching halt yet. Fifteen-plus years of this and they still send me contracts and invitations. It’s not an issue of “she rocks but she’s a really good speaker” but rather that “she’s a really good speaker and sometimes she rocks”. Come to think of it, not even that. No one has ever mentioned it to me. Maybe no one notices. Or maybe no one cares.

My office chair is a rocking chair. Rocking chairs exist because people like to rock. Even the better sorts of conference room chairs rock. Rocking is soothing. Rock on!

Listening to the same music track repeatedly is a great stim. For the highly distractible ADHD brain, it nicely spackles in some of the attentional inputs, and helps drown out some of the random auditory background, thus enabling better concentration. There must be LOTS of people who like to do this, as many music players have a Repeat function so you can listen to the same track over and over and over and …

Some people try to reduce their child’s stimming through behavioral modification. Unfortunately, this often prevents the person from using their stress-coping mechanism, and thereby increases the sum stress load, which is unhealthy. Likewise suppressing behaviors such as stimming is not going remove the ultimate causality – masking the outward behavioral appearance does not change internal processing. Verily, it can create more difficulties for person by short-circuiting natural learning & stress-management techniques, thus reducing ability to successfully interact with world and others in it.

(And we all know that suppressing the stimming behaviours is not going to eliminate the autism, no matter how “normal” the person acts on the outside. Duh.)

Of course behavioral modification can be used to change problem behaviors; it is something that good parents and teachers do all the time. But smart parents and teachers know that the best way to prevent problem behavior in the long run is to address the cause of the problem. Wise and caring parents and teachers do not blame the child for having problems and stimming, but help the child learn ways of dealing with the daily stresses, and if really necessary, find ways of stimming that are more socially acceptable.

Because you know that stimmy autistic children grow up to be – stimmy autistic adults. And fidgety ADHD children grow up to be fidgety ADHD adults. Next time you’re in a meeting, quietly scatter a bunch of paper clips on the table and watch what everyone does with them!