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!

11 Comments

  1. qw88nb88 said,

    20 July 2007 at 4:44

    Well, everyone’s different. People do stimmy things for all sorts of reasons… It’s soothing when you’re stressed. It’s added input to help focus when you’re hyperactive. It’s an outlet of pleasure when you’re happy.

    When I do that kind of flapping, it’s an expression of “This is fun”, much in the manner of clapping expresses appreciation. You ever see a game show (“The Price Is Right” or whatever), where the contestants jump up and down? They clap, and shake their fists, and … flap. They’re excited. They’re happy. They’re having fun.

    Sometimes there’s the agitated flappy, where I’m literally shaking stress off.

    Sometimes there’s the fiddly flappy, where venting some energy allows me to focus better — I jiggle a foot, or bounce my knee.

    Go watch a space shuttle launch, or the dropping of the ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Watch the crowds who are expressing their excited anticipation of the event in all manner of jiggles…

    We all stim!

  2. hyperlexdad said,

    20 July 2007 at 4:01

    While watching videos or something he likes (digital timers counting down), my 8 year old son (HFA & hyperlexia) jumps up and down in place and, with arms bent at elbows and hands near his head, flaps his hands very rapidly.

    He said he flaps “because it’s fun.”

    I’d like to know from an adult that flaps how it feels to you…does the hand movement give you proprioceptive input, or what? Where do you feel it?
    I’m an NT dad (though my wife says otherwise) who wants to understand.

  3. Bonnie said,

    6 June 2007 at 17:55

    I just found this site and really appreciate the articles! My almost-three year old son is being assessed for Aspergers and I have to wait 6 months for an assessment. In the meantime I’m searching the net for how to manage things like…stimming. Very happy to have the point of view from someone on his side of things. I’ve been able to form my own ideas on how to manage his stimming JUST from articles written by other adults with aspergers/autisim. By the way, he stims when he is bored, too.

    Bonnie

  4. KenMarshall said,

    19 April 2007 at 4:03

    Thanks for helping

  5. qw88nb88 said,

    17 December 2006 at 0:21

    Note to assorted visitors:

    I do not know if you are perhaps being misdirected, but this is NOT a Web site devoted to assisting users with Windows-based difficulties. Please do not post queries for assistance to your technical problems here. I am not a System Administrator or Help Desk technician; I don’t even use Windows OS!

    Visitor posts related to such queries may be deleted as being extremely off-topic. This is not meant to insult anyone — it’s not personal.

    andrea

  6. qw88nb88 said,

    15 October 2006 at 11:27

    That’s a good point, Ettina. I guess when I’m doing the engrossed-stimming, I don’t really notice it. Personally, I don’t consider the excited-flapping sort of stuff as “stimming” — it’s just being happy!

    I’m too hyperactive to have “nothing interesting to do” moments, so I’m usually doing several things at once. I hadn’t really thought of stimming as “time-filler”, hmn …

  7. Ettina said,

    15 October 2006 at 10:31

    I mostly like your article, except I’d like to point out that stimming isn’t always stress-related. I stim when I’m stressed, but also when I’m concentrating on something I like, when I have nothing interesting to do,and when I’m excited I jump up and down, tensing my upper body and maybe hand-flapping. So stimming isn’t always stress.

  8. qw88nb88 said,

    12 October 2006 at 16:19

    Rock on, Phil! Too many people place a high value — and a high price — upon the apperance of normalcy. (I think “normalcy” is over-rated.) Your point about personal boundaries is spot-on.

  9. Phil Schwarz said,

    12 October 2006 at 6:06

    Andrea, you definitely rock :-).

    I think the really important idea that your observations lead to, is that we need to shine some light on what is deemed “socially acceptable” and what is not. A simple, consistent, meaningful, and culturally objective criterion is: does the stimming activity invade anybody else’s boundaries? It’s the old saying (Oliver Wendell Holmes, I think) “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

    Using that criterion, hand flapping must be considered socially acceptable: it violates nobody’s boundaries. Screaming, OTOH, is a good example of a stim that needs to be replaced with something more socially acceptable, under this simple, effective definition.

    The first question about any stim should be: does it violate anybody else’s boundaries?

    The second question should be: does it seriously get in the way of the individual meeting their *own* objectives?

    If the answer to both questions is no, then the stim should not be redirected or discouraged.

    Instead, the individual should be taught the means to *assert his or her right* to engage in the stim where that right can be asserted without ultimate adverse consequences beyond his or her control, and taught the judgement skills to determine when that is and is not the case.

    Basic self-advocacy stuff. And yes, the topic of stims and stimming is quite directly connected to the topic of self-advocacy.

  10. susanne said,

    16 September 2006 at 17:26

    Hallo,this is Susanne
    I got the link to this site from aspergian island.
    I am a newly converted to the discovery of lovely ADHD/AS traits in myself plus my family( my mama is turning 70 ,she still runs the most phantastic,thriving and Wild garden in the whole world and and still stands on her head!).
    About stiming,I remember that I often climbed on trees ,up to the top branches, as a kid (plenty around,I m born in the Black Forest) to actually SWAY back and forth.
    This used to freak my mum out but looking back, ,I think it is a really cool and healthy way of rocking…
    I discovered recently that other people can rock me-it s called pulsing and seems to deeply relax me,works well on every body part.
    Could it be ,that the rocking wish is the being rocked in mama s arms and feeling welcome on this planet issue?
    I also host something
    called Torticollis spasmodica (dystonie,looks like a supertick) and when I rocked my daughter it was gone.
    Born to explore,nice blog ,this! gREETINGS sUSANNE

  11. Dee Carrick said,

    10 August 2006 at 19:39

    I am old enough to remember when stimming was a really bad thing. Unfortunately I still hear people talk about stimming as something to stop. You are right – all people stim- we doodle, wiggle knees, chew gum, etc. Maybe because the senses are sometimes different for autistics, and because their stress is so much higher, people with autism do it more or in different ways. Anyway, please check out our stim site! Our family has a site to sell stims, relaxers, stuff for interests, etc. http://www.ozmofun.com


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