Category Archives: Cognitive Function

Chronologically Out of Step

When our daughter Jess was little, her dad and I used to take her to see a lot of animated movies. Jess and I really enjoyed them, but The Scientist often dozed off twenty minutes into the film. He slept through Toy Story and Shrek and Monsters Inc. before we all decided that a better plan was to split up when we went to the movies. That way he was free to see the latest action movie while Jess and I watched the newest offering from Pixar or Disney.

The Incredibles, Cars, innumerable sequels in the Monsters, Toy Story and Shrek series. Nightmare Before Christmas. Brave. WALL-E. Coraline. Up. Paranorman . . . Actually, I saw quite a few of those by myself. Jess is all grown up now and The Scientist still isn’t a big fan of kid’s movies. To be fair he stayed awake for the entire Lego Movie and thoroughly enjoyed Big Hero 6, but he wouldn’t have gone to see either if I hadn’t suggested it.

I imagine quite a few adults would consider my interest in animated movies that are mostly marketed to children to be childish. It certainly hasn’t escaped my notice that most of the other adults in the theater are there to chaperone children.

I’m not sure what it is about animated movies that I enjoy so much. Maybe it’s a sense of nostalgia, dating back to the time when I was a young parent and the excitement that we shared as a family going to a new movie. Maybe it’s the sly humor that the writers build in for the adults in the audience alongside the simple feel-good themes that most of the movies have. I’ve even seen it suggested that many of us gravitate toward animation because the exaggerated facial expressions are easy to decipher.

Maybe I just really like animated movies.

Whatever the underlying reason, it’s hard to escape the sense that my enjoyment of the movies is somewhat age inappropriate. I don’t know a lot of other middle-aged women who were as excited as I was about the Lego movie. I do know better than to blurt out “How about that Lego movie?” when talking with most other women my age.

Fortunately not all of my tastes in media run toward children’s programming. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Netflix created a recommendation category for me titled “Dramas with Large Ensemble Casts and Lots of Cursing.” That gives me sufficient fodder for dinner party conversation when the subject turns to movies and TV.


Age Appropriate

The concept of “age appropriate” has been one that’s always haunted me. In elementary school, from about fourth grade, I began to get the sense that most of my peers seemed to somehow older than me. As if they knew something I didn’t.

By the time I got to middle school, that vague sense of being “behind” widened into a very obvious maturity gap. Many of the other girls in my class were developing an interest in dating and fashion and other things that marked a critical right of passage, and in which I had little intrinsic interest. In high school, most of my peers spent the school week looking forward to a weekend of drinking, partying, dating, football games and dances. Again I felt left out, having barely caught up with the concept of dating.

My interests ran more toward listening to music, reading, riding my bike, and shooting baskets in the driveway. At least the ones that I would publicly admit to. I also had a huge fascination with the TV show M*A*S*H and still liked to pull out my collections of baseball cards, stamps, and coins. Occasionally I pulled out my model train set or my Matchbox cars and Barbies were still in my closet. My bed was home to as many stuffed animals as it could hold and I still had a well-worn baseball mitt that I’d gotten in fourth grade.

Instinctively, I knew that there were things that it was “okay” for a teenaged girl to be interested in and interests that were best kept to myself. Sometimes the appropriateness of an interest hinged on gender stereotypes, but just as often it was related to age, either in the sense of something being “too childish” (or sometimes “too adult”) for the age that I currently was.

I spent a lot of years assuming that I would simply catch up with my peers, that I would develop an interest in partying and chasing boys at football games and gossiping on the phone for hours after school each night. When I graduated, without that ever having materialized, I somehow went right on assuming that I would catch up with the adults that I saw around me who invariably seemed much more adult to me than I seemed to myself.

I’m sure this is a typical reaction of many young people as they make the transition into adulthood in their early twenties, however I was still thinking this in my late thirties and early forties. After being diagnosed with Aspergers, I finally realized that there would be no magical catching up with my peers. I was simply different and that was okay.

By Whose Milestones?

The really interesting aspect of this to me, is that while autism is commonly referred to as a developmental delay, no one ever explicitly told me that I was “delayed.” Many years spent comparing myself to my typical peers and seeing the obvious differences had somehow caused me to assume that I was just a few steps behind them.

It’s not surprising to me that many parents look at their autistic children and make the same assumption, often with the encouragement of doctors, teachers, and other professionals in their children’s lives. And in the same way that I passed many years simply assuming that I would catch up, I think many parents spend years operating under the assumption that the goal of their children’s education should be to “catch them up” to their typical peers rather than to equip them in ways that are practical and useful for the child.

Ariane Zurcher recently wrote a blog post about how focusing on the belief that her daughter Emma was developmentally delayed caused her to pursue therapies that in the end she felt were not helpful to Emma. Here’s a quote from that post (emphasis is mine):

“for us it meant constantly comparing our daughter to her non autistic peers (using their development, and not hers, as the ideal).  It meant pursuing all kinds of therapies that never questioned the push for spoken language.  It meant not considering AAC devices, because she “had language.”  It meant encouraging my daughter to “use your words.”  It meant asking her to focus on things that made it impossible for her to concentrate on what was being taught.  It meant looking at her through the lens of deficits, so much so that they became blinders shutting out everything else.”

Ariane’s words hint at the danger that lurks in the idea that autistic kids need more than anything to catch up to their nonautistic peers. The emphasis, when working from that assumption, is on getting the child to do things in a way that may not be the best possible way–or even possible at all–for them.

A straightforward and common example is speech. Here are some standard developmental milestones for speech and language:

  • by 3 months: makes eye contact
  • by 6 months: imitates sounds and facial expressions
  • by 12 months: says 1 or 2 words
  • by 21 months: uses at least 50 words, names objects
  • by 24 months: begins to use 2 word phrases, uses simple pronouns
  • by 36 months: asks simple questions

If an autistic child isn’t making eye contact, smiling when smiled at, or saying a couple of words by 18 months, it’s very natural for their parents to look at the other toddlers who are doing all of these things and assume that their child needs professional intervention to help them catch up with their peers.

However, autistic language development varies greatly from the developmental norms. Some autistic people speak early, some at a typical age, others at a later-than-average age and some not at all. Some of us use speech for simple interactions and text or other means for more complex interactions, while others use AAC for all communication. Some of us never reach typical milestones and other leap over milestones at an atypical age.

We are each literally our own developmental milestone chart and to compare an autistic person’s language development to their peers–autistic or not–is both unfair and counterproductive.

The typical developmental milestones are useful as a diagnostic aid, but beyond that they are simply a distraction. Rather than focusing on meeting a set of speech milestones, the emphasis should be on finding communication methods that work reliably for the individual autistic person.

The Fallacy of Mental Age

Another potential pitfall of the developmental delay paradigm is that it leads to the assumption of “mental age” in those individuals who don’t meet developmental milestones on the expected schedule.

If a child is mostly nonspeaking until the age of 5, echolalic for several years after that, and begins to use short phrases at 12, some people will make the assumption that the child not only has the language abilities “of a 2-year-old” but also the thought processes and cognitive abilities of a 2-year-old. As many parents of children who began speaking at a later age can tell you, that’s far from true.

A person who is echolalic at 7-years-old, speaks in short phrases at 12 and uses some sentences at 22 isn’t simply delayed. They have a completely different communication ability than their peers. It’s entirely possible that they’ve been capable of typing in full sentences for a decade or more before they used any sentences verbally. Perhaps not, but unless they’re given the chance to learn to use a variety of communication tools other than speech, no one will know for sure.

Chronologically Out of Step

The inspiration for this post was in part a Facebook discussion that Ariane initiated prior to the post I linked to above and in part some comments on the Intersection of Gender and Autism posts here.

I was struck by how many of us had a sense that we were somehow lagging behind our peers when we were younger or how we still had interests that might be considered age inappropriate by people given to making such judgments. In each of these comments, there was a hint (or more) of embarrassment around these interests.


That got me thinking about all of the ways that I’ve felt chronologically out of step over the years and, more importantly, why. As always, the what of it is fairly easy to quantify, but the why is trickier.

Sometimes the sense that I was lagging behind was tied to not wanting to give up a special interest or to returning to a “childish” special interest for comfort. My love of animated movies and the giant stuffed dog that resides on my couch are a couple of innocuous present-day examples.

Other times, particularly around adolescence, I think missing out on big chunks of social cues and being mostly oblivious to certain types of peer pressure contributed to my sense that I was socially and emotionally younger than my peers. I suspect most kids didn’t necessarily want to start dating in middle school, but they knew that socially it was important to show that they did. It made them seem mature or cool or whatever it was that meant fitting in. Which, incidentally, was exactly the thing I could never seem to intuit and obviously still can’t quite pin down.

Most likely, there were girls who made fun of me in middle school and high school for being so out of step with what was expected but I was mostly too clueless to notice if anyone was whispering about me behind my back. And really, when you have people who will outright tell you that you’re a dork to your face, there isn’t much point in searching for more bad news.

These things, combined with the ever-present sense that I was different from most other kids left, me always feeling the need to catch up but never quite knowing how to do that.

Which brings me to an interesting point that Anna raised in the comments: there is a difference between throwing out the concept of a delay and throwing out all hope of a person learning new skills. She specifically mentioned that as a child, she was left to her own devices a lot and not really pushed to learn organizational or social skills or to further her interests in new ways. She pointed out the value of a “golden middle way” in respecting differences while helping children develop the sort of executive function skills and understanding of the social world that will smooth the road for them a bit as adults.

When Frogs Fly

Finally, it’s important for parents and others who work with autistic kids to understand the difference between, for example, understanding the social world and having neurotypical social skills. The former is achievable to some degree for many of us on the spectrum; the latter not so much.

For example, my social skills are not and never will be those of a typical adult. I don’t have the social skills of a 14-year-old or a 20-year-old or a 30-year-old. It’s not as if I’m simply behind some imaginary developmental curve. My ability to read facial expressions and body language has been “stuck” at the basic level for decades. And I’m fine with that. I have coping mechanisms to make up for some of what I lack and the rest I’ve learned to live with. In the past, I’ve tried to learn how to read more subtle nonverbal communication and finally concluded that it’s not going to happen.

In fact, as I was talking about some preliminary ideas for this post with The Scientist, I told him that teaching me to make consistently natural-looking eye contact would be like teaching a frog to fly. No matter how many times you take the frog up on the roof and toss it off, it’s never going to sprout wings. And it doesn’t need to.


A/N: While looking for photos to illustrated this post, I saw the gingerbread people photos and thought “ooh, cute!” and decided to use whimsical gingerbread people family portraits to illustrated my Very Serious Post because it felt delightfully age inappropriate. 

Big Picture? What Big Picture?

Two weeks in my new town and I’m finally starting to orient myself geographically.

It takes me a good long while to get a feel for a new town or a new neighborhood or even a new Starbucks. It’ll be weeks or  months before I stop asking The Scientist things like, “do I turn left here to get to the center of town?” and “which road goes to that grocery store I like?” If I’m driving alone, I rely on Waze for directions.

It’s not just my poor sense of direction that throws me off–though that’s a big part of it. It’s my difficulty with putting all of the elements together to see the big picture. In fact, The Scientist jokes about how ironic it is that I finally figured out not just the layout of our old town but all of the best shortcuts–just in time for moving away.

In the past, I knew to expect the disoriented feeling of being in a new place but I didn’t know why it happened. I think I’ve finally figured out the why, at least in part. It’s that big picture thing that autistic people are always being told we have so much trouble with. I learn a new place based on the individual parts of it that interest me most–the details–and it takes a long time to integrate those details into a functional whole that I can not only visualize but use to navigate.

Until that happens, I know where the grocery store that I like is and I know where Target is. I know that Route A takes me from my home to Target and Route B takes me from my home to the grocery store. But ask me to go from Target to the grocery store and I’m reaching for Waze. I struggle with visualizing how “home” and “Target” and “grocery store” are related to each other in the gestalt concept of “city.”

Continue reading Big Picture? What Big Picture?

You Are Getting Very Sleepy

Note: The annual Autism Positivity flashblog is being held again this April 30th. Visit the website to find out how you can participate.


For the past few weeks I’ve been getting ready to move. That’s meant making lots of phone calls to change over utilities and insurance and such. And packing. Lots of packing. Of course packing also means deciding what to keep and what to toss and what to donate, plus a good amount of organizing and reorganizing. Because, you know, it’s important that my entire file cabinet go into the box in the best possible order, with not a single scrap of unnecessary paper cluttering up my system.

I’m happy to say that nearly everything on my list is done. Which is good, because the moving truck arrives in less than forty-eight hours. I’d also like to say it all got done smoothly and according to plan, but that would be a lie.

You see, I have this thing that happens when an anxiety-inducing event is imminent: I suddenly feel very very sleepy. I don’t just mean that I feel a little tired–I mean I feel 2 AM tired.

Mostly it happens before social events. The Scientist will be busily showering and shaving and choosing an outfit and I’ll be calculating down to the minute how late I can start getting ready.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take me long to make myself presentable. That means I can safely put off getting ready until the last ten minutes before we need to get out the door. Any sooner and I’ll be all ready to go while simultaneously wanting to lie down on the couch  and take a quick nap.

The strange thing is, even when it’s happening, I know the tired feeling is an illusion. It’s my brain trying to get my body to play enabler, to somehow avoid the anxiety-inducing event. Some people get butterflies in their stomach or a need to pace. I get a sudden urge to hibernate in a blanket fort for a week or two.


So in addition to all of the usual chaos of getting ready to move, I’ve been trying to outsmart the sleepy feeling. Not surprisingly, actually sleeping doesn’t work. In most cases, it isn’t even an option because the thing I need to do is both imminent and time sensitive. But even with most of the moving tasks, where I could grab a nap and then do them later, there is no actual sleeping to be had. Because if I lie down, all I’m thinking about is the task I should be doing. So then I’m both sleepy and annoyed with myself for procrastinating.

It helps a bit to think of the feeling as something other than sleepy–to call what it really is, which is some sort of defensive withdrawal. When I look at it that way, I understand intellectually that I don’t need or want to sleep. I also know from experience that the best “cure” is to do the anxiety-producing thing. Often, I simply need to get started and the feeling clears.

To get the stuff on my moving list done, I used a lot of the same tricks I use to manage my executive function deficits: lists, rewards, schedules, telling myself that I just have to call one insurance company instead of all three or pack up a box of clothes, which is easy, rather a box of dishes, which is harder. Once I get on the phone or haul out the packing materials and tape and boxes, it’s much easier to just keep going. It’s the getting started–getting past that initial wall of do not want–that’s the real trick.


When I told The Scientist that I planned to write about this topic, he suggested that I also write about, “the way you yawn when you’re bored during a conversation.” My yawning habit (for lack of a better description) has long been a source of annoyance for both of us. The Scientist assumed I was bored but not telling him; I was flummoxed whenever he brought it up because I usually wasn’t  feeling bored when it happened.


Coincidentally, a New Yorker article about the science of yawning popped up on my Tumblr dashboard within hours of the The Scientist’s suggestion. Buried beneath a lot of other more complicated theories is the suggestion that in addition to yawning when we’re bored, tired or hungry, we sometimes yawn when we’re anxious. That makes sense to me. Yawning definitely helps me clear my head and it gives my nervous system a poke, both of which help me stay focused. Coincidentally, that’s a pretty accurate description of the effects of stimming too.

These days I mostly catch myself before I yawn during important conversations. When that familiar feeling creeps up, I get up to pace or intentionally engage in a stim that has the same effect as yawning. But it was interesting to learn that there are all sorts of theories about yawning and they aren’t all centered around boredom or fatigue.

Addendum to the Addendum

The article I linked to above also mentions that autistic people are less likely to be contagious yawners. I’m curious whether autistic readers think this is true? I’m very susceptible to contagious yawning, to the point that I yawn when my dog yawns. In fact, I’ve been yawning pretty much constantly while researching, writing and proofreading the last two sections of this post.


Autistic Regression and Fluid Adaptation

In my last post, I talked about my recent language difficulties and mentioned autistic regression. Sometimes called autistic burnout, autistic regression is a loss of skills or coping mechanisms.

Regression can refer to a specific set of skills or abilities:

  • progressively losing the ability to speak

  • deteriorating executive function

  • reduced memory capacity

  • loss of self-care capabilities

  • loss of social skills

  • reduced ability to tolerate sensory or social overload

It can also refer to a general loss of the ability to cope with life or to accomplish all of the necessary daily tasks of living.

Sometimes the loss is temporary–a period of a few weeks or months–after which a person regains the lost abilities. Other times the deterioration in skills or coping mechanisms takes place over years. It may be come permanent or semi-permanent, with skills being regained but not to the level at which they previously existed.

Often a period of autistic regression begins during or after puberty or during the transition to adulthood (late teens to early twenties). Mid-life is also a common time for autistic people to experience burnout or regression. In fact, many people (including me) list a noticeable change in their ability to cope with daily life as one of the reasons for seeking a diagnosis. However, autistic regression can happen at any age and is often preceded by a major life change or a period of increased stress.  Continue reading Autistic Regression and Fluid Adaptation

Practically Perfect in Every Way


You’re such a perfectionist.

Are you cringing after reading that? I am.

Perfectionist is rarely used in a positive context. As a put down, it’s a polite stand-in for rigid, controlling, procrastinating, slow, nitpicky, paralyzed. Even when people try to use it in a positive context, it rarely casts a favorable light. “Your strengths? Well, you’re a perfectionist . . . that can be a good thing.”

The Roots of Perfectionism

Perfectionism is basically the flip side of catastrophizing, with a side of control freak. Let’s face it–not a positive character trait.

I say this as a lifelong and unreformed perfectionist.

And because I’ve been a perfectionist for as long as I can remember, I’ve given a lot of thought to the why’s and how’s of it. Perfectionism is believed to be rooted in childhood. We somehow get the idea in our heads that we’re valued for our achievements. As we grow older, we base our self-worth on the approval of others, convinced that if we can do things perfectly, we’ll be loved and accepted. If we fail, on the other hand, we must be worthless.

This is the classic explanation of perfectionism.

For me, the problem with this explanation is that I never quite felt like it fit. It’s in the right ballpark. I do seek approval from others, though just as often, I couldn’t care less. I put a big emphasis in my life on my accomplishments. Doing well is important to me and I often believe there is a standard of perfection that I should live up to, or at least aim for.

What I don’t see in myself is the worthlessness. I’m hard on myself when I fail, but I bounce back quickly. My fear of failure is low. I’m willing to put myself out there and see what happens, even when I know that the risk of failure is high. It’s rare that I feel worthless, even when I screw up in a big way.

Multidimensional Perfectionism

As I researched perfectionism, I came across more nuanced models. For example, some psychologists believe that there is adaptive perfectionism, which motivates us to strive for success without the negative impact on self-esteem that the classic maladaptive perfectionism carries.

Others classify multiple types of perfectionism based on the object of the perfectionist thinking:

  • self-oriented perfectionism: setting irrationally high standards for one’s own behavior, appearance, achievements, etc.

  • other-oriented perfectionism: setting irrationally high standards for others to conform to

  • socially prescribed perfectionism: believing that others (particularly significant others) have irrationally high standards for one’s self to conform to

When perfectionism is broken down this way, I see myself in all three categories. The Multidimensional Personality Scale (MPS) backs up my instincts. The average scores are 1s and 2s. My averages are 4s and 5s. In working through the questions on the MPS, I began to formulate a new theory about why so many autistic people are perfectionists.


The Link Between Autism and Perfectionism

I think autistic perfectionism has some additional dimensions to it, beyond the classic model of “if I’m perfect, people will love me.”

First, our tendency toward black and white thinking can create an appearance of perfectionism. If I sit down to write an essay for English class with the idea that I will either produce the perfect essay or I will produce garbage, that looks a lot like perfectionism. But what if I think about my essay that way because I’m not good at thinking in shades of gray? What if it doesn’t occur to me that between perfect and garbage, there exists pretty bad, below average, acceptable, pretty good, very good, excellent and nearly perfect?

It might seem like splitting hairs to differentiate between straight-up black and white thinking and perfectionism, but I think doing so can illuminate an important difference. If I’m trying to write the perfect essay because I truly think the only other option is a terrible essay, what I need to work on is remembering that there are other possibilities. If I’m trying to write the perfect essay because I think that doing anything less makes me a failure as a person, I need to work on my self-esteem.

Personally, I think my perfectionism a mix of the two, weighted more toward black and white thinking, which may be why I don’t have the feelings of worthlessness that commonly go along with perfectionism. If anything, I have the opposite problem. Often I’ll finish something and think it is perfect, until someone tells me otherwise. I’m so certain that I haven’t made a total disaster of it that the only other option is I’ve done a stunningly good job. Bizarrely, my perfectionism cuts both ways, again because I haven’t accounted for things like “really well done” or “good enough” or “close but not quite” in my potential outcomes.

The other factor that feeds perfectionism in autistic people, I think, is rooted in our childhood experiences with failure. As I read through the questions on the MPS, I realized that my strong agreement with statements like “I usually have doubts about the simple everyday things I do” and “People will probably think less of me if I make a mistake” is rooted in decades of living with undiagnosed ASD. Decades of knowing that something was off. Of feeling like I had to work a lot harder than other people to keep up a semblance of normalcy. Of trying to hide all the little ways in which I not only wasn’t perfect, but I wasn’t even “normal.”

Passing, after all, is a kind of perfectionism in itself. It may even be possible to make an argument that our subconscious need for approval is an upshot of the pressure to pass that we feel from childhood.

Autistic perfectionism is like the deluxe bonus edition of perfectionism: subconscious need for approval plus black and white thinking plus social/internal pressure to pass. And like a lot of deluxe bonus editions, this one isn’t really worth paying extra for.

The One Where I Talk to Myself About Shame

You’ve been putting off writing this for a while, haven’t you?



More like months.

And how’s that working for you?

Well, I wrote posts about functioning and the verbal-nonverbal disconnect and executive function to avoid what I really wanted to write about.

Which is?

Shame. All the things I’m supposed to be able to do. The ways executive function undermines developmental expectations. What it means to be independent and what it means to be developmentally delayed and why those two things are not mutually exclusive.

Because I don’t live “independently.” I never have. I don’t know if I could or not. I probably could if I had to, though maybe not as successfully as I’d like to pretend.

You’re doing it again, veering into an easier topic to avoid that shame thing a little longer.

Right. Shame. Hang on.


Hey, enough with the Googling! Get back here and write something.

Relax. I needed context. How about this:

Shame is rooted in our perceived defects. When those defects are revealed to others, we see ourselves in a negative light. Shame creeps in.  Continue reading The One Where I Talk to Myself About Shame

Decoding the High Functioning Label

Aspies are often labeled high functioning by default. Some people even seem to think it’s a compliment.

“You must be very high functioning. You don’t seem autistic.”

“Why, thank you. And you’re not especially ugly.”

Because, yeah . . . being told you’re “not that autistic” like it’s a good thing is hard to swallow.

Functioning Labels in Practice

Applying functioning labels to autistic people is problematic. Maybe an example will help illustrate why.

I’ll describe two autistic women, Mary and Joan. See if you can tell which one is high functioning and which one is low functioning:

Mary is a wife and mother. She’s been steadily employed since age 16, has a BA degree and runs her own small business. She exercises regularly and is health conscious. When her daughter was younger, she volunteered for parent committees, hosted sleepovers, coached softball and drove carpool. As the more detail-oriented spouse, Mary has always managed the family finances and investments. She has a diverse set of hobbies and pastimes that include dog training, target shooting, reading mystery novels and fiction writing.

Joan is a wife and mother too. Her marriage has been rocky at times, thanks to her undiagnosed ASD, and she has no close friends. Joan works at home, avoids speaking to people on the phone and prefers to spend most of her days alone. Joan sometimes needs to be reminded to brush her hair, shower or put on appropriate clothing before going out. She’s never negotiated a lease or car purchase by herself and has never lived on her own. She enjoys going to the zoo, vacations at Disney World, animated movies and has several stuffed animals that she likes to hug after a hard day.

It’s obvious that Mary is high functioning and Joan is low functioning, right?  Continue reading Decoding the High Functioning Label

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