The generally accepted definition of stimming is repetitive “self-stimulatory behaviours”. It can affect people with differing diagnoses and conditions, and while it is a common feature of autism it is not necessarily an indication of ASD. It can affect old and young alike, although older people may learn to hide or mask behaviours that may appear ‘weird’ to others. Whoever engages in it, I regard it as a ‘self-soothing’ coping mechanism.
These repetitive behaviours can take a wide variety of forms, for example:
- physical (hand-flapping, rocking, hard blinking) and verbal (repeating noises or words)
- outwardly visible (pacing) and unseen internal actions (tightening & relaxing stomach muscles)
- intense response to sudden disturbing occurrence (rocking head when there’s sudden loud noise) to a prolonged response to sensory overload (whole body rocking)
In short, stimming is as varied as the individuals who stim.
I have used stimming as a coping mechanism for so long that I don’t recall when it started. I do recall the first time it was commented on although I didn’t know there was a name for it. I was in my early 20s and my husband and I were walking by a river. In the distance I saw two or three people coming towards us. As they got nearer I began to sing – just quietly (I think) – and when they were a ‘safe’ distance behind us I stopped. This was when my husband commented that he’d noticed that I often sang when strangers approached. I thought it was probably due to a nervousness I have in such situations. That was it.
Forty-odd years later I have a very clear knowledge of what I do, what helps me, and when to tone it down.
I still sing, but in a nonsense / repetitive way if very distressed; before my ASD diagnosis my husband would ask me to sing something he recognised so he could join in!
I move my fingers – stretching, flexing – when I need a short-term fix to get my thoughts back in focus
I tap my feet, separate or together, push up on my toes, or bang my heels down
And I rock. Gently, rhythmically, most of the day. I rock as I’m going off to sleep, and I find that I’m rocking when I wake
ASD stimming is harmless to others; it causes no offence. So why people question it is absolutely beyond me. So called ‘neuro-typicals’ also stim, but their stimming is considered socially acceptable. It is socially acceptable because ‘N-Ts’ are in the majority. Except that their stimming behaviours can be environmentally unfriendly, offensive, harmful to themselves and others. But it’s OK.
These six characters are with me for a lot of my day. Their leader, and my constant companion is Norm – the hedgehog who’s been with me through thick and thin for nearly 24 years. For those of you who know Monty Python, he’s named after Spiney Norman. They are important to me and, like other forms of stimming, help me cope in difficult times.