Just recently I came across an article (The Dark Side of the Stim- Self-injury and Destructive Habits by a fellow WordPress author Kirstenlindsmith) which opened my eyes to some of the destructive actions I was prone to as a kid and then again as a teenager. I didn’t know I had Autism until I was twenty-three, and my struggle now is tracing my behaviors back to when I could first remember doing them with the new knowledge I have. The more I research the more information I find that explains why I am the way that I am. I can now put names and terms with the identifiers and trace their evolution to get to the new coping I have learned over the years. One of those identifying traits was stimming. Stimming is self-stimulating behavior which includes anything from light tapping of fingers to spinning in circles although the most commonly known stim is hand flapping. Not all stims, however, were created equal. I am now understanding that stims can also be self-harming behavior, often times unintentional, but they serve the purpose of both “releasing” the abundance of sensory build up that can occur or on the opposite end can gain sensory input when there is a lack of it. This is one of those topics where each person with Autism can be extremely different. There are stims for getting information, dissipating information, good stims, bad ones, controlled stims, and sub-conscious ones. Each person may have a variety of reasons for doing them making this a topic where I can only give my personal experience which may or may not be similar to anyone else.
Let’s start way back in the beginning of my life timeline. My first and by far the most powerful stim I have had was sucking on my left index and middle finger while simultaneously rubbing the tag from a Beanie Baby bear named Curly on my lip while it was wrapped around my right index finger. I did that for twelve years and not for lack of my parents trying to get me to stop. They cut the tags off the Beanie Babies, but I found new tags from other stuffed animals or corners of my blankets. They tried putting bitter tasting spray on my fingers, but the results of the stim often outweighed the taste. They even went so far as to tape my fingers together with a medical grade tape in order to deter me with the rough texture, but I just picked at it until it was unraveled. They finally decided I needed braces, which was largely due to a dozen years of things in my mouth all the time. Everyone told me repeatedly that I had to stop, but it wasn’t until they began tightening the braces that the pain and sensitivity was overpowering the comfort of the stim. If you have ever had the torture of braces you know how sensitive your teeth feel all the time in the beginning, and it often left me crying myself to sleep or just being a terror in general. My stim turned into biting down on soft things like blankets or pressing my palms against the braces to try and counter the pressure. Once they finally removed them my mouth no longer fit my fingers the way it had before them, and it made stimming that way awkward and had no calming effect– much to the relief of my parents I am sure. I still rub soft things above my lip to stim, and there are times when I still crave the familiar feeling of sucking on my fingers even as a twenty-five year old, but I have grown to understand the causes and replaced them with new stims that are more appropriate and less obvious– things like nail biting, tapping my fingers on things, or using a stress ball or hair tie for tactile stims.
Those are just a couple of the good stims that I have. I probably have at least a half-dozen more that I do either consciously or unconsciously to cope with my rising sensory levels through the average day. I also have destructive stims, however, and while the good ones help me to redirect too much information at once and to focus on one particularly calming sensation to more or less drown out all the other senses those negative stims often are done because I can no longer cope or process information at all. When I was younger I would bite myself not uncommonly to the point the skin would be broken. I would scream or kick and throw what to the untrained eye looks like a temper tantrum with all the classic stereotypes of a spoiled kid who didn’t get her way. On one occasion my dad had to literally drag me into second grade. I refused to go, and when I couldn’t make him see the invisible sensory overload happening in my brain I lashed out and did everything I could to protect myself from the place that caused it. The worse the meltdown the less control I have over the stim. I can’t speak for everyone, and I am not even sure if this is accurately the root cause of my own stims, but biting seemed to take an overwhelming amount of emotional stress and turn it into a physical sense that I was able to process more effectively. The older I get the more I can understand particular emotions, but I don’t always know why I feel a certain way or how to cope with how I feel. Biting rarely occurs now but does so as a result of an abundance of frustration that I can’t find the cause of whether due to physical input or cognitive challenges. Biting can turn into lashing out either at an outside sensory cause or if the cause is internal often as a result of ignoring the need to cope to complete a task. Many of my adult meltdowns are due to too many emotions at once or frustration with not understanding how my brain works causing me to hit myself sometimes before I have a chance to process it more effectively. Luckily, I have been able to keep my negative stimming to a minimum, but only when I consciously make an effort to begin coping strategies when I get to a certain point in being overwhelmed.
I say all that to say stimming is important, but understanding why Autistic people stim is more so. It is different for everyone, but the basics are because it helps for our brains to process information in a way that for the most part doesn’t make sense to non-Autistic people because their brains are able to process sensory stimuli easier. I think stimming for us is natural and should not be seen as a negative just because it is misunderstood. Kids should be able to stim as needed, but they also should be taught new coping techniques that they can use as adults that may fit situations better. For example, I hate interviews and they make me extremely uncomfortable and nervous, but rather than use a bunch of highly active stims I am able to focus that energy into simple leg bouncing and twirling my business card in my hands. I can try regulating my breathing when the sensory overload is still in the early, less critical stages too. This works for me even though I want to get up and move around or wear holes into my clothes from the constant rubbing. It may not work for everyone, but it is something to think about in gaining independence with age. I could write another dozen blogs on just stimming alone, so for now I will leave it here, but in the future there will be more in depth looks into stimming and the things surrounding it. Until next time…just keep stimming.