As an adult aspie, I often feel that I need to self-censor in social situations. Don’t say the wrong thing. Don’t stare at people. (But don’t forget to make eye contact!) Don’t laugh at the wrong time. Don’t speak too loudly or too softly or too often or too infrequently. And above all, don’t stim.
Stimming makes people nervous. As a kid, I stimmed like mad. I’ve been rewatching old home movies and there I am stimming my way through Santa’s Land and Disney World and every birthday party ever. I’m bouncing, rocking, twitching, flapping, hopping. I’m hammering with anything that remotely resembles a hammer and rubbing my fingers over every nearby surface. I’m constantly in motion.
Four decades later, my stimming is more discreet. You’d have to be watching closely to notice that I’m rubbing my thumbs over the spacebar on my keyboard when I stop typing. Or that I’m fidgeting with a bottle cap under the table at a restaurant or playing with my hair while driving or folding and unfolding a piece of paper while I wait in the bank.
Stimming is so much a part of who I am that I when first read about autistic traits, I completely denied that I have stims.
That little kid in the home movies grew into a teenager who learned to stim more subtly to avoid drawing attention to herself. I’ve found socially acceptable stims like doodling or manipulating objects (pen, stress ball, cell phone) with my hands. I’ve tucked away my more obvious stims for use in private.
Well, mostly. The day of my Asperger’s assessment, I started out stimming discreetly during the interview with the psychologist. By the time I hit the three-hour mark in testing, I found myself rocking back and forth as I tried to work out the spatial reasoning puzzles.
There is too much comfort in stimming–it’s too much of a biological imperative–for me to completely extinguish it.
I recently read that medicating a child to reduce stimming is a good way to help the child concentrate on school work. Yes, if the behaviors are self-harming or severely disruptive medication might be the answer (though if it were my child, redirecting toward a less harmful stim would be my first strategy).
But for kids who are rockers or fidgeters? I have a feeling that the medication does more to make the people around them feel better.
If anything, stimming improves my concentration. It’s a release, like sneezing or scratching an itch. Have you ever tried to ignore an itch? What if someone told you it was wrong to scratch yourself to relieve an itch? What would that do for your concentration?
Stereotyped Movement (Stereotypies)
Stimming is the most common term used to describe the repetitive movements characteristic of autism, but a more formal term (and the one used in the DSM diagnostic criteria) is stereotyped movement or stereotypies. In this case, “stereotyped” has a different meaning than the one we’re used to. In a behavioral science capacity, stereotyped movement refers to repetitive, nonfunctional movement.
Like so much of what the experts term nonfunctional about autistic behavior, I’d ask nonfunctional for whom?
A Little Insight from our Primate Cousins
Trying to understand what stereotypic movement is and why it happens led me to reading about stereotypic behavior in captive animals. In an issue of “Laboratory Primate Newsletter” (Volume 23, No 4, October 2004) I found a surprising answer.
The researchers concluded that stereotypic behaviors in captive animals aren’t truly abnormal; they’re a reaction to abnormal environmental conditions. In other words, monkeys should spend their days swinging from trees and running about in the jungle, not sitting in small cages. When the monkeys can’t indulge their natural behavioral tendencies, they resort to stereotypical movements like “pacing back and forth, running in circles, somersaulting, rocking, self-biting, earpulling, hair-pulling, eye-poking, etc.”
The article goes on to say:
“Many stereotypies are signs of frustration, with the subject being chronically thwarted from expressing basic activities (Reinhardt).”
Yes, stereotypies are related to frustration at being chronically thwarted from expressing basic activities.
Think about all of the things that feel like basic needs to an aspie. Being immersed in a special interest for long periods of time. Being alone. Sticking to routines. Avoiding excessive noise, strong smells, or crowds. How often do we feel thwarted when trying to pursue the things we find comforting? Chronically seems like a pretty good description to me.
When you look at it from the perspective of the animal researchers, aspies are engaging in stimming (stereotypies) not because we’re abnormal but because we’re constantly at odds with our environment.
While it’s impossible for the majority of us to indulge our aspie tendencies 24/7, it’s important to recognize the cost of self-censoring. When I’m happy, the urge to bounce up and down is nearly irrepressible. I’ve learned that it’s okay to bounce when I’m with my family. In fact, my husband’s reaction to my unbridled, childlike joy is often a huge smile. It makes him happy to see me happy, even if my way of showing it is more appropriate to a four-year-old than a forty-three-year-old.
Self-censoring is exhausting. Letting my aspie side rule feels liberating. Why would I want to extinguish that?