A Cognitive Defense of Stimming (or Why “Quiet Hands” Makes Math Harder)

Thanks to Daniel Kahneman’s fascinating book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” I’ve discovered the concept of ego depletion.

Coined by Roy Baumeister, the term ego depletion simply means that we have a limited pool of energy to devote to both self-control and cognitive tasks. If we devote energy to, for example, suppressing temptation, we’ll be less willing to solve a difficult math problem or run an extra lap around the track.

Baumeister did a series of landmark experiments to prove the link between self-control and our willingness to engage in difficult cognitive tasks. He found that people who were asked to resist eating chocolate cookies and candy were quicker to give up on solving challenging puzzles than those who were allowed to indulge in the sweets.

What the heck does this have to do with autism, you ask? A lot.

The types of things Baumeister tested for are all related to executive function (EF)–our brain’s ability to regulate our cognitive processes. EF includes things like planning, problem solving, working memory, attention, and initiating, sustaining and inhibiting actions. That last part is really important–that’s where self-control enters the picture.

When we look at the tasks that Baumeister asked his subjects to do, they all call on the brain’s executive function reserves. And impaired EF is a central feature of the typical autistic brain.

What’s More Important: Quiet Hands or Long Division?

Many therapists, teachers and other professionals believe that extinguishing a child’s stimming is necessary for learning to take place. Their justification is that stimming diverts the child’s attention away from the information or task. To help the child focus, they insist on “quiet hands” or “quiet bodies.” The assumption that a child can learn better if he or she suppresses stims has been widely disputed by autistic adults and by some parents, teachers and therapists.

The obvious reason for objecting to “quiet hands”-type instruction is that it shames the child for moving in a way that is natural and comforting for them. Others have written eloquently and in great depth about this subject; I’ve linked to some key pieces below rather than repeating what has already been said.

The case I want to make against “quiet hands” is that in addition to being emotionally damaging, it’s cognitively counterproductive. Think back to the experiment where the people who were told to resist eating chocolate gave up more easily on solving puzzles. Substitute stimming for chocolate and learning long division for solving puzzles. Add in the fact that autistic people have impaired executive function to begin with, making inhibition of actions more challenging, and you can see why asking a child to resist stimming is counterproductive if you’d also like them to learn a new skill.

An Illustration (or Let’s Pretend EF is Something We Can See)

To help us think about executive function in concrete terms, imagine two children in the same math class. Since we can’t actually see or measure EF in a simple way, let’s use imaginary EF “units” to talk about typical versus impaired executive function.

The typical child has 100 units of EF available for math class. The child with ASD has impaired EF, meaning s/he begins the math lesson with 70 units of EF.

Assume the typical child has to exert some self-discipline to attend to the math lesson: 20 EF units, which are devoted to things like staying seated, paying attention, and not talking to classmates. That leaves 80 units that can be devoted to learning math.

Assume the autistic child has to devote twice as much EF (40 units) to self-discipline. Not only does s/he have to do all of the things the typical child is doing (staying seated, paying attention, not talking to classmates), s/he has to inhibit the natural urge to stim. That means s/he is starting out with less EF and devoting more of that small reserve to self-discipline.


Look at the amount of EF each child has left for doing their math work. The autistic child starts off at a disadvantage and is further disadvantaged by a classroom rule that has supposedly been put in place to help him or her.

A Brief Clarification

Before you say, “but how can s/he learn math while spinning around/headbanging/bouncing up and down” let’s clarify what stimming is. Yes, sometimes stimming is all of those things, but it is also fidgeting with a toy, chewing on a chewy, bouncing a leg/foot, flapping a hand, flexing fingers, rocking gently, moving around on an exercise ball used as a chair, or any number of other things that can be done while sitting at a desk.

In fact, every time I stop typing to think of what I want to say next, I start rhythmically tapping my fingers in sequence on my keyboard. That’s stimming. I don’t think about it. I don’t do it on purpose. It isn’t a “behavior.” It happens naturally. It helps me organize my thoughts and stay on task.

It’s the opposite of a distraction.

The Cost of Inhibition

So when I say that a child should be allowed to stim and that stimming is more likely to be cognitively beneficial than distracting, that’s the kind of stimming I’m talking about. Note that in my example, the autistic child was expected to do the things the other typical children were expected to do, such as sitting in their seat and not talking to classmates. They aren’t being allowed to do “whatever they want”–an assumption some people will jump to when anyone raises the notion that autistic children should be allowed to stim.

Maybe while they’re sitting in their seat and working on their math problems, they’re also manipulating a piece of string or a fidget toy with one hand. Maybe they’re sitting on an exercise ball so they can gently roll from side to side. Maybe when they pause to think they flap their hands.

Imagine the red self-discipline portion of the graph shrinking for these kids when they’re allowed to stim while they work. When that happens, the green “solving math problems” portion can grow. When they no longer have to spend EF resources on not stimming, those resources can be repurposed for learning.

If you find it hard to imagine how difficult it is to inhibit stimming for an extended period of time, try this: imagine you have a bad case of poison ivy, you’re not allowed to put any medication on it or to scratch where it itches . . . and I’m going to teach you how to find the limit of a function as x approaches a fixed constant.

How much of that math lesson do you think you’ll retain? Would you even care?

A Few Words About Socially Acceptable Behavior

There is another argument against stimming at school or in other public places: we need to teach autistic kids socially acceptable behavior so other kids/people don’t think they’re weird. Well, I have two things to say about that.

Yes, autistic children should be taught the same social rules as typical children. They should be taught to respect others and all of the rules of politeness and civility that go along with it. But here’s the thing: I was an autistic kid and I can tell you for certain, stimming or not, the other kids already think we’re weird.

Instead of insisting that autistic children adopt unnatural behaviors for the sake of social acceptance, how about working toward changing what is socially acceptable?

**** I’ve used children as an example throughout this piece, but everything here applies to autistic adults as well.

Further Reading:

Quiet Hands by Julia Bascom

The Cost of Compliance is Unreasonable by Beth Ryan

Another Way to Silence – Shame by Ariane Zurcher

My Decision, Not Yours by Alyssa

On Stimming and why “quiet hands”ing an Autistic person is wrong by Rose

102 thoughts on “A Cognitive Defense of Stimming (or Why “Quiet Hands” Makes Math Harder)”

  1. Got to the end, read the blog links, thought about it, and realized I was rocking the entire time! Ha.

    It’s strange. I always thought that I didn’t do “that stuff.” I was completely in denial. Every time I would catch myself doing something that was a stereotypical stim (like rocking) I wouldn’t stop myself from doing it, but it was sort of a mental “let’s not talk about this.” agreement with myself. I think it was some of the stigma that I remembered from growing up with my brother (also on the autism spectrum–he was actually diagnosed, unlike me, who just sort of floundered along on my own.) I do remember his stimming. I remember every day, getting home from school, he would go to his bed, wrap himself tight in a blanket, and rock, rock, rock. He wasn’t stopped from doing this. But, it was a Big Deal. Always talked about. “He rocks.” “Yep, every day, he rocks.” “He rocks, rocks, rocks. It’s weird, not normal. He does it, but it’s weird. But, it’s because he’s Autistic (read: abnormal, a little less human) so just let him do his thing, while making it obvious to others that it is a Big Deal.” I didn’t want to be a Big Deal. I didn’t want to be my brother, not because I thought of him as “less than,” but because I saw his stigma, I saw how everything he did was medicalized, and I could never cope with that. So, while I still did these things, I simultaneously never admitted that I did these things. “Let’s not talk about this,” quietly wipe the dust from my metaphorical self, and move on my lonely way, feeling, yes, a little ashamed.

    I think the most comforting part of my journey towards understanding of AS, and of myself, has been my realization that these little parts of myself don’t have to be a Big Deal. They don’t have to be “tolerated,” with that knowing, “Oh, she’s just a little strange,” condescending eye. It’s just a thing that I do, that I like doing. A thing that helps. No more a Big Deal than the fact that my husband likes a tall glass of Coca Cola when he’s feeling worn out.

    A part of me wishes that I could go back in time, and rock right along with my brother. (Due to an abusive home life as a kid, I have no contact with him, for my own safety.) God. And now I’m twirling my foot, and trying not to cry. I guess this has affected me more than I ever thought. Thanks for this post, and the links. It has helped me to process some things that I’d never realized I needed to process.

    1. Wow, I hope everyone comes down here and reads this comment because you describe so well what many autistic adults experience. Those of us who are too old (talking about myself, not sure about you 🙂 ) to have been “quiet hands’d” were often told to sit still, stop fidgeting, etc. or simply got the idea early on that our constant movement wasn’t normal/acceptable and therefore was something to be lessened or hidden.

      It’s kind of heartbreaking to read about your childhood feelings toward you brother and what people’s treatment of him told you about yourself. But it’s good to hear that you’re healing those old scars and have come to see your stims as a natural part of you. I’m in much the same place, embracing my natural way of moving rather than subconsciously suppressing it. It is very much the same as your husband reaching for a glass of Coke or any of the other little things that adults do to comfort themselves on a regular basis.

      I’m glad this post and the links were helpful. 🙂

  2. I always got “your such a spaz” for my restless energy. My body is electric, almost always. For me movement is critical to being stable and productive. I stim, but I also have tics. Stims soothe and alert but tics just happen. I am grateful that my son has tic breaks built into his school schedule. Thank you for another great article! 🙂

      1. Tics *can* be distracting, I have vocal tics–words, hoots and clacking that just erupt. At home I don’t even notice it. My husband thinks it’s adorable, but my son is annoyed and asks me to be quiet. The moment my mind drifts, I’m back to making noise. It’s like scratching an itch or adjusting an uncomfortable pair of pants. You tic and feel more comfortable. Without the tics, the discomfort mounts until you must release the behavior. Stims soothe and comfort. I rock back in forth in grocery store lines for comfort or finger dance or tap my feet; but the head toss and invisible glasses adjustment are tics. I wrote about it since I noticed some kids on the spectrum have tics like Tyoma and I : http://aquietweek.com/2013/01/20/tourettes-awareness-for-parents-of-autistic-children/

        Thank you for asking. Sorry for the wordy reply! Neurology and its fascinating manifestations are fast becoming a special interest! 🙂

        1. Thank you for the explanation. That makes sense. Sometimes stimming feels like a way to release internal pressure for me but it’s often something that I don’t even know I’m doing at first so there’s no conscious sense of discomfort that precedes it. .

          I think I read that post but I’m off to read it again. 🙂

  3. I’m pretty much always stimming. Rocking when I read. Playing with my pen when doing sketches for technical diagrams or working on math. Drumming my fingers the keys while writing. Jiggling my leg when doing tedious stuff. Etc.

    I’m lucky I was small for my age growing up, since the teachers in my life chalked up my business to being young for my grade-level (I was always either the youngest or second-youngest by birthdate, and if you included the fact that I was born almost 3 months premature, I was by far the youngest developmentally and looked it. They probably subconsciously treated me as younger than the other kids behaviorally. So I didn’t get too much flack for stimming at school. At home, yes (“Don’t be rude!” for playing with a loose thread on my clothes, “Stand still!” for twirling in line, etc). But not at school.

    1. I’m often in motion too and when I’m not, I tend to be squirmy, changing position every few minutes because nothing feels quite right or I don’t know where to put a leg or arm. Stimming tends to lessen–or maybe distract me from–that feeling of not being at home in my body.

      It’s interesting that teachers treated you differently because you were the youngest. It makes sense that they would write off any unusual behavior to a lack of maturity compared to your peers.

      1. It makes for an interesting contrast, because I’m the eldest kid in the family – at school, one grade excepted (when I had a teacher I loathed because she was an emotionally abusive bully and used the kids as tools in bullying kids she didn’t like) I was allowed to basically be me by the adults. The kids bullied me, but in class, I was safe. I have complaints about how my school handled bullying (short version: Punishing the victim for reporting until the victim stopped reporting and then saying, “See? We have no bully problem!”), but none about how I was treated in class. So long as I wasn’t being a disruption, I was left to my own devices.

        By contrast, as the eldest kid in the family, I was regularly reprimanded for reading when company was over, fidgeting, practicing piano too much, not going down stairs the right way, not walking right, having a weird run, not wanting a big birthday party (no, really), being an embarrassment for refusing to draw on a kids’ menu at 12 (long story. Short version: my father wanted an excuse to berate me for something and manipulated the situation with increasingly aggravating demands until I provided the excuse), etc. Ostensibly because I had to set an example, but I think more because I was not a sporty, cute social butterfly and practical joker like my sister. Without going into it too much, she was definitely the favorite and I was always being punished for basically not being an older version of her.

        1. Everything you say here really hits home with me. At school I got away with a ton of stuff because I was smart and teachers seemed to equate smart with good (or maybe “can do no wrong”) and then overlook a ton of stuff. But I also had some horrible experiences with bullying in my late elementary school years, to the point that there are still types of physical touch that will trigger me today. But yes, at home expectations were high and I think being the oldest and being different are a tough combination when you grow up in a family that emphasizes normative standards. I totally get what you’re talking about.

          1. Oh, for me the teachers definitely didn’t think I could do no wrong, but most of them (the teacher I alluded to above excepted) recognized quickly that I could either be a teacher’s pet or a holy terror depending on whether or not they made me get bored (I’d keep myself occupied quietly if I was allowed to, through reading or working on math derivations for fun – I wasn’t a kid who was disruptively hyperactive, but I was a kid with nonexistent boredom tolerance) and told me early in the year that once I finished my work, I could do whatever I wanted as long as it didn’t bug the other kids. The best ones from my perspective took the view that as long as I was working on something, they were happy (thus I could skip stuff I’d already mastered to work ahead – loved it when I could do that because what they had me do). If they did that, I was great to have in class: I’d work quietly, wouldn’t gossip, wouldn’t be a disruption, and some even used my pedantry to their advantage by having me proof-read the notes for them as they wrote on the board. If they tried to make me sit quietly and do nothing (which to me always felt like being punished for working efficiently), I’d act out.

            To this day, if you make me sit quietly and do nothing, I can last maaaybe five minutes before I have to fidget or get up and walk around. Keep me occupied (or, alternatively, let me keep myself occupied), and I do great. Make me bored, and both of us will be miserable. I can’t do bored, even as an adult. As a kid? Forcing me to be bored was 100% guaranteed to induce a meltdown until I was in my teens.

            1. Boredom was a big problem for me, all the way until high school where there were more challenging classes. The teachers not only gave me all sorts of extra work in elementary school, the pawned me off on the central office, the library and the reading teacher as a “helper.” I really enjoyed those times because I got to be the special helper for an adult and spend time out of the classroom.

              Like you, I’m still not good with too much free time. I get restless so easily if I don’t have something at hand that interests me. I guess that’s the upside of having special interests, isn’t it? Maybe it’s an adaptation to keep our busy autistic brains busy. 🙂

              1. I never thought as to why my boys have special interests, I’ve just accepted it, and encouraged them to be safe (when the interest was something like rock climbing or breakdancing). But your comment about it being an adaptation to keep such busy brains busy really strikes a chord with me. Thanks!

  4. At first I thought my stims were mostly verbal, but I’ve actually done some stimming while taking exams. If the exam is on the computer, I’ll be interacting with it like it’s an actual person. I’ll write everything down, look at it with a confused expression, scratching my head thoughtfully, angrily stare at it (when I don’t know the answer) and making all kinds of weird expressions and gestures while I’m deep in thought. If I don’t, you can bet I’ll start talking about it to myself, and out loud half of the time. (Unfortunately, I’m not so sure that verbal stimming will ever be accepted, lol. I can see how it’d look really crazy to other people.) Stimming is a way for me to dump all the useless thoughts and stressful feelings so I can focus on the more productive ones…

    1. I talk to myself a lot. Or I do mindless verbal things like read all of the aisle signs out loud as I walk through Target. Hadn’t ever thought of it as a form of stimming but I guess it is. Especially the echolalic verbalizing because I’ll repeat words just to hear/feel the sound of them.

      Verbal stimming is probably one of those forms that would bother other people more often than not. As for looking crazy, I’d say no more so than all those people talking on their (often invisible to the passerby) bluetooth headsets. 🙂

    2. Part of why I get a room alone for exams is so that I can do verbal stims without distracting others. (Although most of it is because I tend to get more anxious from empathy with other students than from the test itself. And they say we lack empathy!)

  5. Great explanation – I love your math/EF unit metaphor. And I like Baumeister’s chocolate experiment. The result makes perfect sense.

    I remember reading about a related study but for dogs – a fun one with an electronic hamster (unfortunately that was the only detail about it that had stuck…). I didn’t find it, but I found another dog study that seems to parallel Baumeister’s findings although the study objective was different. The study itself “Self-Control Without a “Self”?: Common Self-Control Processes in Humans and Dogs” is trapped behind a paywall, but it is summarised on this blog (Psychological Science.org):

    Psychological scientist Holly Miller and her colleagues at the University of Kentucky knew from previous research that human self-control relies on the brain’s “executive” powers, which coordinate thought and action. It’s further known that this kind of cognitive processing is fueled by glucose, and that depletion of the brain’s fuel supply compromises self-discipline.
    The dogs were all familiar with a toy called a Tug-a-Jug, which is just a clear cylinder with treats inside; dogs can easily manipulate the Tug-a-Jug to get a tasty payoff. In the experiment, some of the dogs were ordered by their owners to “sit” and “stay” for ten minutes. That’s a long time to sit still; it was meant to exhaust the hounds mentally, and thus to deplete their fuel reserves. The other dogs, the controls, merely sat in a cage for ten minutes.

    Then all the dogs were given the familiar Tug-a-Jug, except that it had been altered so that it was now impossible to get the treats out. The hungry dogs could see and hear the treats—but not get at them. The idea was to see if the previous demand for self-discipline made the dogs less, well, dogged in working for the treats. And it did, unmistakably. Compared to the dogs who had simply been caged, those who had stayed still for ten minutes gave up much more quickly—after less than a minute, compared to more than two minutes for the controls. In other words, exerting self-discipline had used up much of their sugar supply—and weakened the executive powers needed for goal-directed effort.

    (The focus was on physical energy depletion, and they did a second experiment to see if they could fix it with sugar – restore the energy spent on self discipline so there would be no difference between the subjects and the control group – and apparently they could. I don’t think that would work for autistic kids, or for myself:-)

    1. Thank you for the article – I’ll try to get my hands on it when I get back from a short vacation, which I’m about to leave for any minute. Isn’t our brain the biggest source of energy consumption in our body? Higher cognitive function is really resource intensive so it makes sense that it would burn a lot of glucose. And I think you’re right about it being a little more complex in humans. 🙂 Although I’d be happy to have a scientist try to revive me with a cupcake when my EF was poor!

  6. I grew up in an Aspi-family, so at least at home I was no the odd one out. But I grew up with all those rules “Look at people when you talk to them”, “Don’t lecture an adult even if he is wrong about something you know better”, and also “Don’t fidget”. It is sitting so deep that I have instead of twirling hair, fiddling with my fingers or biting nails come to grinding my teeth rhythmically. Hardly anyone sees it, so no embarrassment… It is ‘just’ slowly destroying my teeth and giving me problems with the joint of my jaw. Such is the prize of hiding my ‘oddness’ this far from the public.

    1. Thank you for sharing this. It’s a perfect example of what happens when people try to extinguish stimming in kids. It goes deep underground, but it never goes away and that can end up being seriously damaging.

      Do you think it would be possible to relieve the teeth grinding habit by consciously diverting to another type of stim? I know it must be hard because of all that conditioning from childhood. I’ve been slowly giving up my instinctive tendency to hide my stims and let my body express itself the way that it wants to. It’s a gradual process and sometimes I catch myself doing something in public that might draw attention, but I’m working on not caring.

      1. I tried chewing gum instead of grinding, but that actually made it worse for my jaws. I try to stop myself whenever I catch myself doing it, and I also am much more open with my plushies now. Of course, I cannot take them everywhere, but pretty much everywhere is already a great relief. Kids and family/close friends have already grown used to mummy and her plushies. Working away from home of course still is a problem…
        Being alone with my laptop and looking more closely I find myself doing all kinds of other things. Which makes me realise that one person, even someone rather close, is enough to start the “don’t do this” programme.

        1. That’s awesome that most of the folks around you are used to and fine with your plushies. 🙂

          I think in childhood it really does take only one important person in your life to changes things in a big and potentially negative way. One of the benefits of growing up is we have so much more autonomy and choice.

  7. Then comment about “teachers equate smart with good..” Excellent. This concept needs a mass movement. I noticed the problem when I worked in a public high school. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The teachers overlook the inappropriate behavior of the children they get along with or who get their particular teaching style or who have always been labeled smart.
    I have heard that your emotional stability comes from how stable and loving your home was before the age of ten. I believe, however, that after eighth grade (US) children are branded as smart or stupid by whether they pass their state math test. This is a bias of the teachers and the system. The students who aren’t equipped with adequate social skills don’t know how to live it down so they give in, which means giving up.

    1. I think the teacher-system bias goes both ways for both academic and social skills. Where I live, it’s not determined primarily by math scores, but by the student’s relationship with the teacher, whether in school or as a family friend. For ex., the most talented person in orchestra who gets the first chair position in county orchestra might not always get the first chair position in their school if their relationship with the teacher is so-so and if someone else has a better relationship. Here it seems that you have to be likable to be considered smart or good. (Unless you were so smart that you blow everything out of the water. But that’s a different story altogether.) So in this case, the students who aren’t equipped with adequate social skills don’t feel like they can be as extroverted or find it frustrating to try, and everything else can fall by the wayside.

    2. The “smart” (gifted) label was a really powerful influence on my childhood and how adults viewed me. I think without it, I would have been labeled something much less “positive” and a lot of my less acceptable behavior punished instead of overlooked. There’s definitely a bias in the traditional school system that favors a certain type of student.

      1. I know that I definitely was lucky(?) enough to have a positive bias from my teachers, because I was smart. I can’t believe with everything that I got away with. (Like, spending an entire semester of Chemistry class, planted in the frontmost desk, with my feet up on the teacher’s desk, playing Gameboy. How did I get away with it? Because the teacher knew that I still understood everything he was teaching, likely already had my homework done, and would still manage to pass with an “A”. Other classes, I wasn’t as blatant, but would still be reading for most of the class period, drawing, or otherwise mentally engaged in whatever my interest was at the time.)

        Then, when I changed school systems my senior year of high school, and the new teachers didn’t “know me” well enough, I suddenly lost the bias that had let me get away with everything; I suddenly wasn’t treated like a little adult “stuck in school” anymore. I definitely threw a (albeit polite and rigidly controlled) fit when confronted with it, and wound up thrown out of art class, with a teacher shouting that I was “spreading contagious negativity, and trying to incite a riot.” Really? Me? Incite a riot? WHAT? I just didn’t want to draw “a nice sailboat or lighthouse” for a water project (I had it in my head that I wanted to draw a glass of water, with a bit of sand and beachy stuff at the bottom), when I was used to an art teacher who let me wander around the school, paint a mural, and do whatever I wanted. I didn’t know how to cope with the change of environment; how do you go back to playing by “kids’ rules” when, because of your intelligence, you’ve never really had to before? At the moment, it seemed like the hugest injustice. Looking back, my god was I spoiled by being seen as the “smart kid!” What incentive did I have to normalize myself and play by the rules? (Never went back to art class, by the way–I didn’t need the credit. Instead, without the time block from art, I had a two hour long lunch that I spent pursuing, you guessed it, whatever I was interested in at the time. Once again, what incentive did I have to not follow my own rules?)

        1. Some of my teachers used to let me get away with that stuff, too. I sometimes wonder how much more my sister (who had at-the-time-undiagnosed ADHD and was otherwise the stereotypical fashion-loving teenage girl) would’ve liked school if they’d accommodated her distractability like they did mine. I got away with it because they thought it made sense for me to be bored because I was a nerd and nerds are smart. Never did they think that my sister might be smart, too. And she is.

          So she was bored just as silly as I was, but she was a social butterfly and liked typical teenaged girl stuff, so her acting out took the form of loud complaints and gossiping with classmates where mine took the form of ignoring the teachers and meltdowns from boredom frustration. Plus there’s sexism there where typical girls (especially pretty and social typical girls) aren’t thought of as smart – and when they show they’re smart, it’s downplayed. Thus I got compliments for my smarts, where my sister got accusations of cheating. I was advised to take advanced classes, she was patronized and told she might not be able to handle them. And she was far, far more bored in school than I was because I was accommodated by most of them where she was not.

  8. *hugs* it breaks mine too. 😦 I’ve had to go through that! I’ve recently discovered I might be autistic, so seeing my past from that perspective really explains everything but it also brought up a lot of repressed resentment I didn’t even know I had. Not every school is like this, and I’ve definitely been in great ones that were a good fit for me, but I feel like if you value one strength more than the other, it’s going to leave a part of the student population behind. As with everything else, there needs to be a balance.

    1. You’re in disguise! 🙂 Looking back at my past in light of ASD was really difficult for me to, for a time. Gradually I came to accept that it is what it is and the best I could do was try to heal that part of myself as an adult. That helped a lot in letting go of the hard things. I hope that you’re able to move forward too, when you’re ready. *hugs* back at ya

      1. Yup, totally in disguise-you inspired me to start a blog of my own! I’m still getting used to WordPress. It keeps signing me as invisible autistic when I want to sign my comments as Robin, so I need to update my profile 🙂 I’m slowly moving forward, one step at a time and spending more time with myself and not forcing myself to socialize before I prepare myself for it ahead of time.

  9. I just found your blog through a friend. My son was diagnosed at 4…a few years ago with Aspergers and then I followed and my daughter…I was 26 when I found out that I was an Aspie and I had already been married 8 years to an NT. It was rocky at times but wonderful ( he is sensitive and has ADD so I think it enables him to understand me and find me refreshing.) since finding out I allow myself to “stim” more or clap when excited ect. I allow my kiddos to do the same…however if I know they will be extremely mocked for behaviour I encourage them to switch their stimming to something a bit more socially acceptable but most times I let it go. I also home school them for their sensory issues and to give them the freedom to be. I have a blog on random things here:
    I have resources and books in my library section you may find helpful but then again, I have not read your resource page yet and you may already have them all:)!
    Anyway, I am going to keep exploring your site..

    1. Welcome! I’ve heard from lots of parents who successfully homeschool their autistic children to give them a more comfortable learning atmosphere. It’s great that you’re able to do that for them. Having an aspie mom is probably a big advantage for them too. 🙂 Thanks for letting me know about your blog – I’ll take a look. 🙂

  10. I remember me in school, in the first grades. I remember my mother telling me I have to stay very still and quiet in class. As a child, I was very obedient, and because I was so focused to stay still I could never understand what the teacher was telling us. I had to come home, and take all the lessons from zero. I remember droping my pen all the time, because I used all my energy in staying still like a statue.

    1. Thank you. 🙂 I have a degree in Economics (and had a few professors who thought research paper reading should be the newest Olympic sport). Right now, though, I have a passion for learning about autism so I’m reading voraciously about ASD and anything related to it.

  11. This is exactly how it is for me and I love, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. I tend to bounce my leg, tap my fingers, rub my hand. Though I, of course, couldn’t learn from worksheets while spinning around in circles, and I tend to learn more from worksheets than lectures, I could probably learn from a lecture while spinning equally well or better. I don’t spin in lectures anyway because I’d bump into things and it’d be majorly distracting. If I need to spin, I go into the bathroom.

    1. Yes, I definitely agree that spinning could make certain kinds of learning harder. 🙂 Although I do sometimes spin when I think or during a conversation with my husband. But in class I’ve found lots of other stims that, like the ones you listed, work perfectly well.

  12. Brilliantly broken down! I may not be ASD, but i am ADHD which also impacts EF and find that without “stimming” Learning/Work would be an extreme challenge. I cannot wait to share this to try and help spread more understanding.
    Thank you

  13. I began reading this after a friend posted it on facebook (first time finding your blog, hi!) because I thought it might help me understand my two daughters. Instead I found myself realizing that my entire life I’ve always been tapping non-stop, tapping out patterns with my feet, tapping out patterns with my fingers tips, always quietly and hardly noticeable to anyone else, but something I’ve done day in and day out for as long as I can remember. And it absolutely does help me focus my thoughts… the more I read the more I think that I’ve already begun from a place where I understand more than I ever realized long before we had a diagnosis.

    1. Hi and welcome! It’s so cool that you feel like you already have an innate understanding of this. How lucky your kids are to have a parent who intuitively gets it and shares the experience.

    1. Stimming often has a self-regulating function. It’s hard to explain how it feels – sometimes soothing but sometimes more like scratching an itch or dancing to a favorite song or any number of other things.

  14. Brilliant post. I’m a finger picker…I do it all the time and dont notice. If someone comments on it and I try to stop, all I can think about is not picking….I cant concentrate on anything else, not even a conversation. The only way I can explain it to nt’s is tell them to “think of nothing” and they do but not for long and they can only think of nothing if they concentrate totally on doing that and nothing else 🙂

    1. I know exactly what you mean about the compulsion. It’s impossible to ignore it once it takes root. The only thing I’ve found that kind of works is substituting a different stim but that’s only feasible in certain situations.

      1. I am just now finishing up a wonderful two-week vacation. One of the things I did was experiment with hypnosis to address my finger-picking habit. I haven’t picked my fingers destructively since I started doing the hypnosis earlier this week. The big test will be when I return to work. What’s happening now is that when I would normally pick at a cuticle or piece of skin that is sticking out, and keep poking it and bothering it, making it worse, and often to the point of it bleeding, now I merely touch it lightly, use a clipper when appropriate, and step back and feel good about letting it heal of its own accord. This is bizarre. I’ve been picking my fingers for 40-plus years. Of course, the stimming needs an outlet elsewhere, but I have loads of other stims that are picking up the slack so far. Like I said, the big test will be when I return to work on Monday.

        Used appropriately, hypnosis is fascinating! I’ve been enjoying reading about it, and watching some videos on youtube (not the R-rated ones, which I find completely inappropriate and disturbing!)

        1. I still bite my cuticles and the skin next to my fingernails a little bit, but hardly to the point of bleeding anymore. My secret has been to indulge in more obvious stims, things that I’d repressed ever since I was a child, which has been a great outlet! I hope you’ll be able to do the same once you get back to work, and not feel self-conscious about your stims to the point where you go back to the finger picking… because it’s such a small unobtrusive movement with a large sensory impact. It will be a huge challenge for me as well once I find another job, I’ve been indulging my stims at home but I’m not sure whether I’ll have the courage to do them at work. Good luck!

        2. omg……… so i’m NOT the only one who does this!? Before i would rub my cuticles, i’d have to rub the top part of my head at little growing hairs because the sensation would help me regulate sensory. I’ve never been diagnosed autistic, but I have in fact been stimming almost my whole life (started with stuffed animal tags… id rub them between my fingers). I also cannot touch 3D plastic images because the vibration makes my hair stand on end! I wonder why my sensory input for touch is so great…. I get nervous that the constant repetitive movement will cause carpal tunnel or arthritis in my fingers…. and as an upcoming massage therapist, this isn’t ideal. Let me know if your hypnosis worked!!!!

          1. Yes, hypnosis definitely worked, but I really, really need to keep my fingers and nails fidgeting with something else. My favorite is a ridged toothpaste cap. It’s small and easily hidden in a pocket. I also have small black vinegar jar caps, which are less noticeable. And I always wear a silicon bracelet I can fiddle with in a pinch (when I’m without pockets, etc)

            There’s actually a youtube video you might want to try (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16ICkl2K1yA). I listened to it many times and didn’t stop until I was ready. I used it in combination with another hypnosis practice that included posting reinforcing notes in my home (saying “no finger picking”) (That was from a podcast on iTunes: “Free Hypnosis Session” by John Morgan.)

            I should caution you that hypnosis has the potential to do some harm, so I’d recommend that you really educate yourself on how hypnosis works before you start fooling around with it.

  15. Absolute honest-to-God last back comment (I should really be working and not reading these anyway, but they’re so nice to read…)

    I skin-pick and sing. And reading about stimming, I’m realizing that that’s what I’ve been doing with both of those all of my life, certainly with the singing. I sing and don’t realize I’m doing it, I’ll sing specific pieces of a specific song over and over and over for a week or two, and especially I’ll sing in public places. On my own, in my apartment, I don’t sing much at all (well, silly songs to the cats, but it feels quite different; it doesn’t feel like reflex), but if I’m shopping or walking in a new neighborhood, I sing. I used to sing at school (particularly during tests, that made me oh so popular) and at work (again, had to nip that one in the bud fairly quickly). It always makes me feel better. People used to say, “You seem happy!” and they didn’t realize that actually, the more stressed and busy I was, the more likely I was to sing. And it did make me happier–or at least, smoother. It helped me move forward with whatever I was doing. My family could always find me in public by following the singing.

    Thankfully, I’ve actually paid some attention to my singing in recent years, so I no longer sound quite as…awful as I’ve been told I used to. Though nowadays I do it far less than in the past, maybe because I’m no longer in school and school was the most stressful environment I’ve ever faced.

    (I need to make my own blog so I can just exclaim at the Internet at large about things that suddenly make sense, not just exclaim specifically on your blog…)

    1. I love getting comments on older pieces so don’t hesitate to comment wherever you like. Sometimes I’m a bit slow to reply but I try to get to all of them.

      It seems like people associate singing with happiness–both my husband and his mother sing when they’re happy, so I guess I do too. But it makes sense that you sing more when you’re stressed if it’s a stim. In fact, I think you’ve summed up the definition of a stim nicely here: we rarely realize we’re doing it (at least at first), we do it more when we’re stressed and it helps us to feel better. 🙂

      1. Just to make it more confusing, I also *do* sing when I’m happy 😉 I’d just never stopped to wonder about the fact that sometimes I sang/sing in situations where I’m instantly embarrassed if anyone points out I’m doing it, because it’s so situation-inappropriate and I know I ‘know better.’ A lot of my life involves ‘knowing better’ and still finding myself doing things; finding some explanations for why that might be is very helpful. (Of course, I’m sure a lot of it is also just the basic human fact that few people live up to their own expectations and I’m as human and fallible as everyone else!)

        1. I guess your singing is like my flapping. I only flap when I’m really happy or really squicked by something.

          And yes, knowing better but doing it anyhow is the story of my life. 😉

          1. I sing when I’m happy or bored. And when I’m stressed, I can get into a weird humming thing. I love to sing, but I try to be aware of not bothering other people in close quarters, but when I was a kid I hummed a LOT.

            It makes me laugh when I hear people complain that movie musicals and broadway musicals are unrealistic because “people don’t just break into song when they are walking down the street.” Well, I do!

            1. Ha, yeah! Exactly. In my world, people *do* spontaneously break into Les Mis’s “Stars” or Sweeney Todd’s “A Little Priest” while walking along at night.

              1. Oh yes! Especially at night, when I feel less self-conscious and less overloaded by loud noises and bright light. I have an enormous repertoire, almost like scripting: a random thought or word can put a song in my head, and that’s what I’ll sing out loud.

                1. It’s so nice to hear about someone else who does that. I walk along and find myself dredging up bits of things from years ago, old video game soundtracks, themes from films. Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 6, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Last Unicorn, the ‘Gator Golf’ jingle…I never know what I’ll come up with.

  16. I love this post – how did I NOT see this before? I could have sworn I went back through your complete archive when I started reading your blog.
    While I love the premise of the graph, I am not sure at all if I agree with the idea of the autistic stimming child still having less resources for the math problem than the neurotypical child. The question is, how much of the ability to solve math problems is EF? Problemsolving is considered executive function. But if I was stimming while solving math problems I would exceed most of my peers in exactly that task – Problemsolving.
    Now I’m confusing myself.
    I was also one of the children who, depending on the teacher, got away with much more due to my smarts. For example I played with my set square – or rather the speck of sunlight that the set square reflected on the ceiling, trying to draw patterns with it. The teacher scolded an oblivious boy for it who was a frequent troublemaker. I spoke up that it hadn’t been him, but me – and she explained it away with “must have been her watch” to the boy, not even apologizing, even though I was quite clearly not wearing a watch AND had waved my set square to point out how I had done that.
    I was too confused by the whole thing to contradict her.
    And now I need to write about movement inhibition in my past. (I was never “Quiet handed”, so to speak, so I hesitate to call it that as I was not physically stopped from moving, only constantly made fun of)
    I have to credit you more on my blog, I’m afraid, you’re frequently becoming the inspiration for my posts. =)
    Oh, by the way, next part of the testing series is up.

    1. I was one of the “good” kids who got away with much more than I should have too. 🙂 I guess teachers find it hard to believe that quiet smart little girls can be troublemakers.

      I’m so behind on everything online right now. A major family health emergency has been occupying most of my time this week and I haven’t had time to read my usual blogs at all. I’ll check out your latest post soon.

  17. I have been suppressing the desire to stim in really obvious ways for as long as I can remember. I was just diagnosed as being an aspie (I am 21 years old) but it was a very difficult diagnosis to tease out. I am visually impaired as well, so when I started to rock at a young age, I was instantly instructed to stop because my mother thought it a “blindy” mannerism. I have a bunch of stimmy toys that I fiddle with when I am around other people to keep myself from engaging in behaviors that involve full-on body motion. My ability not to stim goes on a trip to Antarctica when I am doing something like an exam for one of my classes that requires mathematical thinking. I will close my eyes, talk to myself (as quietly as possible, but woo, echolalia), sit on the floor in odd positions, flap my hands, etc. My point for writing this comment was to describe something that I think may be very useful to other autistic people in relation to math and stimming. I use an abacus to work out mathematical operations which I cannot perform mentally. Little did I know that the reason I find this method so simple is because it allows me to stim frantically with my fingers while I think. The model of abacus that I use has many columns of five beads apiece. The columns are separated so that the top bead cannot directly touch the four bottom beads. Each bottom bead represents a one, and the top bead a five. One can perform long division upon this device, as well as multiplication, addition, and subtraction. Also, side note: even though the normal abacus is designed for base 10 operations, binary operations work as well. I discovered this when my electronics professor was pulling his hair out over helping me understand how one “caries” a 1 or a 0 in a digital adder circuit. The abacus is regularly taught to blind children, and I think that it would satisfy this desire to stim while we think in a way that is accepted by others (for those of us who still have some shred of concern with this). Thank you for the superb post. Since my diagnosis, I’ve been working to discover all of the stims that I suppress so that I can start doing them again. I think they will make for a happier and more intellectually engaged me.

  18. I’ve yet to be formally diagnosed but I am almost positive I’m autistic. I’ve been stimming in one form or another my whole life. My constant, semi-unconscious stims are touch based — pinching my lower lip, flexing my fingers, running my hands through my hair, fidgeting with whatever’s around that’s interesting. I’ve also done cross stitch since I was about ten, and just recently recognized it as a stim. I can definitely lose time while doing it; in fact, if I’m doing it on a break or lunch at work I have to set an alarm so I remember to put it down and go back to work. My last boss was super understanding about me having it in meetings, and in my current job all of my meetings are conference calls, which are kind of awful but the stitching helps. And since I’ve started designing my own patterns, I’ve made some pretty amazing stuff.

    I’ve never been a flapper (or slapper — hello, Doctor Who echolalia! that I just realized today that was echolalia), but it is first on the list of almost everybody’s stims that I have seen so I thought, why not, see what all the fuss is about. And all I have to say is


    1. I was never a flapper that I could remember either but gradually over the past year I’ve gotten my flap back and I love it. It’s become one of my favorite happy/excited/distressed stims. It kind of signals a sudden emotional overflow for me, regardless of the context.

  19. Dan does this all the time, and he is amazing at maths unlike me!! we never stopped him, this is part of who he is and thats perfect to me.

  20. More and more lately I wonder if I have some sort of low-level autism. I tap incessantly as part of my thinking process. I also seem to have issues with my “executive function,” as you call it. I’m only just being introduced to these concepts, but they may make sense of why routine tasks for most people are near-impossible for me.

  21. Sometimes my leg will bounce even in my sleep. If I try to keep it still the muscles ACHE, they hurt in a way that is hard to describe. My ex-wife used to get very angry about my leg bouncing, and would be furious if it started in my sleep. Notice the ex part… Thanks for everything you’re doing!

  22. Thank you! My daughter doesn’t do the “expected” stims but I’m thinking her moving the whole time might be just that. She’s sensory seeking, too. What do you think about stuff that provides sensory input? At the table we use a chair “cushion” that has little plastic stubs that are supposed to provide some sensory input and a ball at her feet so she can fiddle with it.

    By the by, in her school, a whole grade (I think it was 4th grade), all kids (special needs and “typical”) use the pilates-ball type of chairs and they said it increased concentration and learning for all the kids.

    Most of us “typical” do stim, but we just give it another name… I bite my fingernails’ cuticles and I’m sure I do other things I don’t even realize. I think realizing that we do stim in some way would be helpful for NT’s to understand stimming and be more tolerant (because, as many autistics have pointed out, NTs not really capable of real empathy even if we think we are).

    1. I think the ball “chairs” are a great idea! I use my exercise ball as a footrest when I read or watch TV. It allows from some movement and seems to help calm the discomfort I sometimes get in my legs where I have to “relocate” them every few minutes while sitting.

      I’ve also seen people use an exercise band (those stretchy resistance bands) tied across the front legs of a chair as a way to create either resistance or bouncy feedback to the feet/legs. Your daughter might like that if she likes movement.

  23. Thank you for your blog and sharing your thoughts – I’m finding it extremely useful.

    I’ve been recognising some of these issues in myself, and am interested in how Executive Function and Kahneman’s System One/Two may relate to ASD/DS – but not seeing much other connections between these.

    Given the possibility of Dual Diagnosis, maybe there are two spectrums of System One/System Two “development”, and what we call ASD and DS might be labels for different combinations of these?

    I can’t see a way to post an image here, so have put a sketch of what I’m exploring here:

  24. I wasn’t diagnosed in my childhood, and I remember two things about stimming while doing my work in school. First, most of my behavior, like humming, swinging my legs, bouncing a leg, tapping a pen or my foot, clicking the pen, mumbling to myself, were not usually seen as distracting, so I got away with doing them for the most part. The thing that I find interesting about that is how I just thought that every child did the same thing. Second, the things I DID get in trouble for tended to get worse when reprimanded, or else contribute to a conflict resulting in getting punished. I remember that I was often in trouble and just couldn’t understand why.

  25. Basically if you want my attention I’m going to be doing some form of stimming. It may not be something you can detect but believe me, I’m doing it. I’ve just learned more subtle ways of moving or making rhythms that don’t get people super irritated with me (at least I hope not, though I still rock and bounce my legs when I’m not expected to act “grown up”). It takes far more energy not to do these things than it does to do them. It’s basically like trying to keep from scratching a very obvious itch. And all the while anything going into my brain is going more and more in the direction of the adults in a Peanuts cartoon (wahwah wahwah wahwah). Not going to help me be productive and you’re going to get mad.

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