Uncommon Parallels: Gossiping And Stimming

In an article from the Social Issues Research Centre (out of Oxford), Kate Fox describes in her article, “Evolution, Alienation and Gossip” the functional rôle of mobile phones for promoting community by aiding gossiping. Apparently my text messages are rather humdrum and atypical, as they relate mostly to grocery expeditions, dinner attendance, and doctor appointments rather than gossip.

However, a particular paragraph caught my eye:

“Gossip is the human equivalent of ‘social grooming’ among primates, which has been shown to stimulate production of endorphins, relieving stress and boosting the immune system. Two-thirds of all human conversation is gossip, because this ‘vocal grooming’ is essential to our social, psychological and physical well-being.”

Grooming-talking (“phatic communion” for the psycholinguistics word buffs out there) is the verbal equivalent of grooming other apes.

Perhaps stimming fulfills many of the same functions, to “stimulate production of endorphins, relieving stress and boosting the immune system”?

I realise the comparison sounds really odd. Instead of being a social kind of functioning, it is a typically autistic kind of functioning. I mean, gossiping is a social activity of the highest sort. Rather than communicating in the sense of exchanging necessary data, it is passing along information as a means to promote peace and solidarity between people in the same “tribe”.

In contrast, stimming is an emblem attribute, the very archetypical sign of the autistic. It is pretty much a self-involved activity; one might stim upon something they’re seeing or hearing, but it’s not a social interaction per se.

Of course, nearly all people gossip to some extent, and nearly all people stim in some manner or another. People are people, whether autistic or neurotypical, and it would be erroneous to assert otherwise.

Nor am I asserting that gossiping and stimming are dichotomous states. Rather, that they are two activities that despite being other- or inner-directed, fulfill much the same psychosomatic benefits.

What is also interesting is that both gossiping and stimming are activities with negative connotations assigned to them. Fox brushes away some stereotypes by asserting that men gossip as much as women, about much the same subjects, and as often as women do (albeit more often with work colleagues). It’s not that men don’t gossip, but rather that they don’t like to own up to it because it seems trivial.

Fox says, “Whatever its moral status, there is certainly some evidence to suggest that gossip is a deep-seated human instinct … This would indicate that gossip, far from being a trivial pastime, actually performs a vital and socially therapeutic function.”

Stereotypical stimming activities like hand-flapping, rocking or finger-flicking have historically been actively discouraged and “trained out” because people don’t want to own up to the fact that they are or someone else is autistic. I am willing to bet that a lot of stimming actually still goes on under private cover, or has been translated into more socially-acceptable fidgets. It is too essential to the human condition to do what one can to reduce stress, one way or another. As a cautionary note, when people cannot use benign ways of dealing with stresses, they will sometimes end up using other stress-releasers that can sometimes be ultimately addictive or self-destructive.

In would be very interesting to run physiological testing to measure some of the state changes in stress levels that occur before, during and after someone engages in a bout of stimming. If we find that these activities do indeed aid people in reducing stress, we may then have further proof that attempting to stop or limit these behaviours is literally harmful to autistics (and others).

Just as people with Tourette’s should be able to function in everyday life without having to spend great amounts of energy trying to suppress their tics in order to pass for normal, autistics should likewise be able to function in everyday life without having to spend great amounts of energy trying to suppress their stims. (Of course, I’m not purporting that highly disruptive tics are going to be acceptable everywhere, nor that injurious stims are a good thing. Such blanket, extreme statements are merely strawman arguments.) As long as the tics or the stims are not going beyond someone else’s personal boundaries, then they ought to be considered acceptable.

Common, polite society needs to realise that not everyone moves, talks, interacts or waits in the same standardised manner. Spending enormous efforts to pretend that one is the same as everyone else does nothing to advocate for diversity and does nothing for one’s health. Disabilities and physical differences are a normal part of life, and so are neurological differences.