Tag Archives: stimming

Where Am I Going, Where Have I Been

Unlike the short story that the title alludes to, this post is about happy things.

August 2012

When I started blogging, it was scary to be writing about myself. I had no idea what me talking about me sounded like. At first I think I simply imitated the voices of other bloggers I liked, holding myself at arm’s length as a defense mechanism.

I probably shouldn’t have been as worried as I was. Few people read those early posts in real time. A lot of you have since mainlined the entire blog (in chronological order, no less), but at the time, I was mostly shouting in the wilderness.

There have been times when I’ve been tempted to go back and revise some of the early posts. I had little knowledge about autism and no right sounding as authoritative as I did. But I’ve let them stand as they are because I like the record they create and I like the evolution I can trace in my writing and in the way I’ve come to think about autism and being autistic. I’ve learned a lot in 26 months, some through research and self-examination, but just as much through the comments that so many of you have generously shared.

As the number of comments on each post has grown, I’ve come to see my writing as a conversation starter and I look forward to seeing what readers will add to my initial thoughts.

I’ve never been good at writing conclusively. Endings are my nemesis. Thankfully, blogging is suited as much to asking questions as to providing answers.  Continue reading Where Am I Going, Where Have I Been

Behavior is Communication: Are You Listening?

Behavior is communication.

This has become a catchphrase in the autism community. And for good reason. It’s certainly true.

A child runs from a store and experts assure the frustrated parent that behavior is communication.

A parent asks for advice about why their recently diagnosed child bursts into tears at bathtime and experienced parents nod in sympathy. “Behavior is communication,” they say.

A child refuses to eat anything but raw carrots and pancakes and the child’s occupational therapist isn’t the least bit surprised. Behavior is communication.

A child flaps at a wind-up toy that’s stopped moving and the experts . . . somberly intone that the child doesn’t know how to communicate . . . that he isn’t aware of the adults around him and is “trapped in his own world”, unable to share his joy with others.

An adult walks away from an autism researcher who is treating him as less than competent, preferring instead to tend his garden, and . . . cue the tragic music as the researcher looks on gravely and the viewer is made to believe that the autistic adult simply doesn’t know how to have a proper conversation.

What’s going on here?

Why is certain behavior treated as communication and other behavior treated as a failure to communicate, often in the same person?

Somehow a phrase that started out as a positive step toward understanding autistic behavior in the absence of language has become associated primarily with meltdowns, self-injurious stimming, eloping and other obvious signs of distress.

Why is that? Do autistic people only communicate distress through their behavior?

In case the answer to that question isn’t obvious: No, we communicate a whole range of emotions and messages. But much of it seems to get lost in translation.

That toddler flapping at the wind-up toy? It looks to me like he’s saying, “that was fun, do it again!” It’s not his fault that the so-called experts in the room don’t speak autistic as a second language.

Going Beyond the Obvious

Meltdowns. Elopement. Biting. Hitting. Crying. Refusing to eat certain foods. These are not the only autistic behaviors that are communication.

Stimming is communication. It’s not enough to simply assume, “this person is stimming so they must be stressed or anxious.” Sometimes stimming is about anxiety or sensory overload. But it’s about so much more than that, too.

My stims are a language unto themselves. I have a stim for every mood, and while the physical movements may sometimes be similar, the feelings that go with them are distinctly different. My happy flapping is different from my grossed out flapping. My excited bouncing is different from my nervous bouncing. The autistic body is constantly communicating and it’s saying so much more than “I’m in distress.”

“Lack of communication” is communication. Autistic attempts to interact with others are often overlooked because they are atypical.

Did you know that an autistic person may express interest in something by studying it for a long time rather than directly engaging at first? Many of us like to understand how all the parts of an object work or how a person responds in different situations before we feel comfortable interacting. And persistent questioning, monologuing, or echolalia–often dismissed as unidirectional communication–are all signs that an autistic individual is seeking to connect.

Eye contact (or lack thereof) is communication. But it’s not the kind of communication that most people assume. If I’m staring off to the side while you’re talking to me, that’s a sign I’m intensely concentrating on what you’re saying. And if I’m making intentional intermittent eye contact? I’m more focused on “passing” to avoid looking odd than I am on listening to what you’re saying.


And that’s just one simple example of how using a neurotypical “dictionary” to interpret autistic behavior and body language can lead to chronic miscommunication. Understanding that behavior is communication is a good first step. But it’s not enough to look at autistic behavior and guess, based on neurotypical experience, reasoning and cultural norms, what that behavior means or doesn’t mean.

Only through accurate translation of autistic behavior can real communication occur.

For that to happen, autistic individuals–including autistic children–need to be allowed to communicate a broad range of messages in the ways that are natural for them. Forcing a child to make eye contact or to stop flapping is the equivalent of forcing them to speak a foreign language. It’s telling them that if they want to use behavior to communicate more than distress, they’ll have to speak another language because theirs is substandard and the people around them can’t be bothered to learn it.

“Behavior is communication” has to apply to more than just a small subset of behaviors or it’s no better than “quiet hands” masquerading as acceptance.

This post is part of the 2014 Autism Positivity Flash Blog happening today



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.


Sometimes This Happens

I sat down this morning to write up this week’s Take a Test Tuesday post. I took the test last week and I have my results and some notes written up so I wasn’t too concerned about leaving it until Monday to get it finished. Then, thanks to Tumblr, I discovered 2048.

The good news: I’ve gotten the 512 tile twice and I’m feeling pretty good about my chances of beating this thing

The bad news: There’s not going to be a Take a Test Tuesday post this week

This happens sometimes. Discover something new, accidentally lose a few hours, rearrange expectations for the day.  In this case, I think it’s part stim, part perseveration.  But sometimes it’s a new special interest or a new aspect of a special interest.  Whatever it is, I’ve learned to stop (eventually) and ask myself what I’m not doing and why. Because this kind of time loss tends to be a sign that I’m avoiding something, at least in part.

The answer this morning is obvious. Writing is becoming harder and harder. I find myself writing less, putting it off. The frustrating thing is, my desk and my drafts folder are strewn with ideas for posts. I want so much to write, but the mechanics of it are increasingly making it a slow (if you’re curious how slow, this took me close to 45 minutes to write and edit), difficult process. I’ve also started to lose my feel for words, which is a bit scary. I write by how language feels and these days it mostly feels flat and lifeless. That’s making my writing increasingly literal and (to me, at least) boring.

Okay, so this post took a strange turn for the morose but I’ll leave it because it’s part of the breadcrumb trail documenting my language difficulties.

I’m going to give myself this week off from posting, I think. My daughter and her boyfriend are coming to visit later in the week (yay!) and we have lots of fun things planned. I’ll be back next Tuesday with a test for us to puzzle over. Until then, good luck getting that elusive 2048 tile.

ETA:  Got the 2048 last night 🙂


Pronoun Reversal and Confusion

One of the obvious early signs of autism in children is pronoun reversal. All toddlers have difficulty with learning the correct usage of I, me and you. However, sometime between two-and-a-half and three years old, most kids gain a firm grasp of personal pronouns.

Specifically, they begin to understand that pronouns are referential rather than absolute words. I can be me but I can also be you, right? It all depends on the situation.

When you think about it, that’s a pretty challenging concept for someone who only recently learned to use a potty, but somehow most kids get it. If a child approaches their preschool years and is still using I, me and you interchangeably, that’s a potential sign of autism. The same is true of a child who continues to use their own name to refer to themselves in the third person.

There are a lot of theories about why autistic kids don’t make the transition to using personal pronouns at the same time or in the same way typical kids do. Some of them are disturbing and stereotypical:

  • autistic people don’t know that other people are actually other people

  • autistic people don’t have an intact sense of self

  • autistic children are “solitary beings” who don’t interact with others

  • autistic children are more egocentric than typical children

  • autistic children don’t pay attention to/listen to/notice/care about other people so they don’t hear how pronouns are used in daily speech

Most of those ideas are rooted in outdated theories about autism. More likely reasons for pronoun reversal in children are:

  • autistic children use echolalia to communicate and say “you” because they are echoing the way other people refer to them

  • autistic children have difficulty with pragmatics (social use of language)  Continue reading Pronoun Reversal and Confusion

Socializing: Reboot

I had jury duty recently. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the US jury service system, US citizens are periodically required to fulfill our civic duty by reporting to a local courthouse and making ourselves available to sit on a jury panel for a criminal or civil trial. The processes vary quite a bit from place to place but often you show up for a day at the courthouse and get sent home without actually sitting on a jury.

Unless you’re really lucky. Like me. Then, somehow, you get put on a jury 2 out of the 3 times you’ve ever been called to serve.

Together with seven other people, I got assigned to a jury panel for a 3-day civil trial. The case was strange. The testimony was at times fascinating, at times mind-numbingly boring. None of that is especially what I want to talk about.

Like so much else in life these days, I approached jury duty as an experiment. A socializing experiment. I decided it was the perfect opportunity to reboot my approach to interacting with strangers. It was a relatively safe, time-limited interaction–if things went poorly, I knew that I would only have to spend three days with these people and then I’d never see them again.

In the past, I would have done my best to pass, hoping that my fellow jurors would like me and more importantly, not think I was too weird. This time around, I made a conscious decision not to worry about that.  Continue reading Socializing: Reboot

Echolalia: That’s What She Said

When my daughter Jess was a toddler, we had a set of board books about the Disney Babies, which were the “baby” versions of Mickey, Minnie and Donald. Jess loved these books. For months, every night we had to read her the Disney Baby books at bedtime. The opening line of one of the books was

“It’s a bright sunny day. The Disney Babies go out to play.”

How do I remember that? Because to this day, I’ll still occasionally walk outside and say, “It’s a bright sunny day” and if The Scientist is around he’ll reply with some variation of “Mickey and Minnie go out to play.”

Yes, he remembers it wrong but that’s not my point. My point is that this is what delayed echolalia looks like in someone who has functional language skills. More than twenty years later, I associate that story with good feelings. Reading it made Jess happy and as she learned to talk, she would “read” the book to me, reciting the lines that she’d memorized.

It’s a bright sunny day has very specific emotional associations for me; It’s shorthand for feeling good about the day ahead.

What is Echolalia?

Echolalia is a fancy word for the repetition of spoken words. For typical toddlers, it’s a transition period in language development. For autistic people who don’t have functional language skills, it’s a means of communication. For me, it feels like a kind of ‘found speech’, similar to the cast-off pieces of pipe and rusted metal that an artist might use to make a sculpture.  Continue reading Echolalia: That’s What She Said

Socially Inappropriate

Socially appropriate.

This innocuous phrase has turned obnoxious for me. Here’s an example of why: I’m reading a book about teaching social skills to children with Asperger’s and I come across a sentence stating that children should be allowed to time to engage in stress-reducing activities, including “self-stimulation in socially appropriate forms.”

What sort of stimming is socially appropriate, you may wonder? The book doesn’t say. Presumably everyone knows? Later in the book I find a clue. There is a list of sample relaxation activities that children can try as a way to de-escalate their stress. One of the activities is “rocking in private.”

Does that mean rocking is socially inappropriate? I assume so, since it’s meant to be done in secret only. How about flapping? Bouncing? Spinning? Playing with a stim toy? Rubbing a surface? Staring at a moving object?

Where does the line between socially appropriate and socially inappropriate lie? Who decides?  Continue reading Socially Inappropriate

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

Sensory Seeking

The summer before seventh grade I went to an amusement park with my cousins. Until that day, my amusement park experience had been limited to kiddie rides. My parents weren’t roller-coaster-riding types and I guess they assumed I wasn’t either.

So there I was, first time in a real amusement park with real rides and roller coasters and everything and I was . . . terrified. I felt sick to my stomach just looking at the rides. But my cousins, who had been to the park many times, grabbed my hands and made a beeline straight for a ride that looked like this:


It was called Strawberry Fields and as we waited for it to start, songs from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” blared from the speakers overhead. My memory of that moment is clear as if it happened yesterday. I can hear the scratchy version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, feel the greasy vinyl of the safety bar beneath my sweaty palms and practically taste my fear as my heart galloped in my chest.

And then we started to move, slowly at first, gaining speed, a little more and a little more until the wind was whipping my hair across my face and the three of us were pressed in a bone-crunching heap against the outside of the car and I was screaming right along with everyone else through 90 seconds of pure, unadulterated joy.

When the ride stopped all I could think was, “holy shit, let’s do that again!” And again and again and again.

I’d discovered one of my favorite sensory experiences: going fast. Blindingly fast. Mind-numbingly fast. The speed was exhilarating. I rode everything in the park. The faster it went, the more I liked it. Spinning, falling, dipping, swinging–I had no idea why I liked the intense physical sensations that the rides created, but I did. When I went back to the park on a seventh grade field trip, I spent the morning riding a roller coaster, jumping off and running around to the entrance to get right back in line.

Sensory Seeking =/= Stimming?

Now that I know about sensory seeking behavior, my sudden intense love of amusement park rides makes sense. Autistic people are often sensory seeking in a big way. We have a strong need for intense sensory input and will deliberately seek out or create sensory experiences to satisfy that need.

Sensory seeking is often described as a way to either stimulate an understimulated nervous system or calm an overstimulated system. Which sounds a lot like the typical definition of autistic stimming.

That raises the question: is sensory seeking behavior a form of stimming? There is a lot of overlap between the two, but I don’t think they’re identical. Stimming provides sensory input so I think we can say that all stimming is sensory seeking. But stimming is generally repetitive, which isn’t always true of sensory seeking.

Going on a roller coaster once or twice? Probably sensory seeking. Going on a roller coaster twenty times in a row? Could be stimming.

Honestly, I have no idea. Feel free to weigh in with your own theory, opinion or confusion in the comments.

The Wild Ones

Much of my childhood play was sensory seeking in disguise. Some of my favorite activities as a kid:

  • Going as fast as I could down big hills on my bike, roller skates or sled

  • Jumping or diving off the high board

  • Hanging upside down and doing somersaults on the monkey bars

  • Jumping on the bed (broke my jaw doing this)

  • Bouncing on a trampoline or Hippity Hop

  • Sit ‘n spin!

  • Climbing trees and hanging upside down from the branches or jumping to the ground

  • Running into the padded gymnasium wall and bouncing off

  • Zipping my arms into my coat and playing crash dummies with a friend (this never ended welll)

  • Lying underneath my beanbag chair while watching TV

  • Swinging as high as I could on the swings then flying off

These are not especially “girly” pastimes. They’ll get you branded a tomboy and a handful. If you’re a boy, you’ll be seen as wild and unruly, maybe you’ll get an ADHD diagnosis.

My next door neighbor had a Hippity Hop and Sit 'n Spin--neither of which my parents would buy me. I didn't especially like my neighbor but I loved her toys.
My next door neighbor had a Hippity Hop and Sit ‘n Spin–neither of which my parents would buy me. I didn’t especially like my neighbor but I loved her toys.

As a teenager I took up martial arts, primarily for the self-defense aspect of it, but I discovered that I liked the contact that sparring involves. Getting hit while padded up with gear creates a very tangible kind of physical feedback. So does pounding a heavy bag or kicking a hand target hundreds of times in a row.

Although that may sound masochistic, it’s not. I don’t seek out pain. Let’s be clear about that. Although I often engage in activities that have a risk of injury and pain, what I’m looking for is a benign physical sensation–one of pressure or contact or movement–not pain.

There is sometimes a belief that people who engage in sensory seeking activities like headbanging, slamming into objects or biting themselves are doing it because pain is the desired outcome and I don’t think that’s always true. It may be true for some, but for others, those activities don’t hurt, either due to pain hyposensitivity or an ability to regulate the level of contact in a way that keeps it below our pain threshold.

64 Flavors of Sensory Seeking

While I’m primarily a proprioceptive and vestibular sensory seeker, there other types of sensory input that I’m strongly drawn to:

  • touching surfaces and objects

  • the feeling of sound resonating in my chest (Tibetan singing bowl, trains, explosions in IMAX movies, loud music)

  • the exhaustion after a hard workout

  • the smell of fire

  • being immersed/floating in water

Of course, that’s me. Everyone’s sensory seeking preferences are different. Some common examples by category:

Tactile: seeking touch from others; touching objects, textures or surfaces (either certain types or everything)

Visual: seeking visual patterns, moving objects, specific colors or shapes

Oral: seeking food or nonfood objects to taste, chew or suck on; seeking specific sensations like crunchy, spicy, or minty

Olfactory: seeking specific preferred smells; smelling everything

Vestibular: spinning, rocking, being upside down; seeking specific head or body positions; jumping from heights; seeking intense speed or movement

Auditory: seeking loud, repetitive or specific types of noises; making sounds because they’re pleasing

Interoceptive: seeking bodily sensations like hunger, thirst, urgency to use the bathroom, fatigue

Proprioceptive: physical contact, crashing into things, stretching, pressure, sound resonance

But Why?

What drives to seek out our preferred sensory inputs? I haven’t been able to find much scientific background, so I have only my personal experiences to share:

Regulatory: As a kid, I think my intense sensory seeking behavior was a way of soothing my overloaded brain. There were many many days when I couldn’t wait to get home from school and ride my bike to the top of the highest hill in the neighborhood. The hard climb up and brain rattling ride down were the only way I knew to soothe the angry anxious restless feelings that built up during the day.

As an adult, I’m better at regulating myself in more typical  ways. Still, after a long day in the city I like to wedge my body into a seat on the train so my legs are pressed up tight against the seat in front of me. I do the same thing on airplanes and long car rides. The pressure calms me and helps downregulate my sensory overload.

I’ve read that stimming and sensory seeking behavior can be stimulating (hence the term stimming) but I’m rarely in need of any added sensory stimulation. I usually have more than I can handle.

Connection: Sensory input reminds me that I have a corporeal form. It connects my mind to my body and my body to my environment in tangible ways. Without touch, pressure and movement, I can easily get disconnected from my physical self.

Organization: Some types of sensory input help me feel more organized and integrated. At the end of the day, when I’m watching TV, putting my weighted blanket over my legs keeps me from turning into a squirmy mess on the couch. Without the added weight on my legs, I’ll change positions every five minutes trying to get comfortable because my body feels so disorganized and physically confused by the end of the day.

Physical dissociation and disorganization are things I’ve only recently realized that I experience. I was going to write about them to help clarify the “why’s” of my sensory seeking but I wrote so much that it will have to be a separate post.

Not Growing Out of This One Either

I’ve always had strong sensory-seeking tendencies. I think I always will. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually one of the things I like about being autistic. I have the ability to experience certain sensations in ways that most people don’t.

I like the intensity and immediacy. I like the pleasure I can find in mundane everyday things like the rumble of a passing train or the feel of a matte bookcover. It’s not exactly a superpower, but does give the world around me a vivid tangible realness that I can tap into whenever I need to reconnect myself with my self.