When I was little, when I was alone, I spent a lot of time spinning or bouncing a ball against a wall. This is stimming – repetitive behaviours associated with autism. But in public my stims were less visible, stunted. I stretched my fingers, picked my fingernails, fiddled with my hair and flicked my eyes around. People often commented on this, which I hated, but I couldn’t stop these stims. I think they were the minimum amount of stimming my brain could cope with.
Sometimes, when I was really upset, I’d put my hands on my head and rock. It made me feel like a freak.
Later, when I began reading about the autism spectrum, all these stims, the fact that I couldn’t stay still, made sense. But I thought I was only a low-key stimmer, mainly a fidgeter. The obvious, stereotypically autistic stims were rocking, flapping and spinning. I’d grown out of spinning, I hardly ever rocked, and I never flapped.
But out of curiosity I tried rocking again, and it felt good, even though I thought it made me look like a disturbed child. I started to shed some of my prejudice against being visibly Autistic, and rocking started to feel completely natural. I rock every day now, but I don’t always feel comfortable doing it in public.And I read a forum thread about stim toys and bought a ‘Tangle’ toy. Tangles seem to complement and facilitate the way my hands have always wanted to move, and their textures are relaxing. Today I have a large collection of Tangles and other stim toys. I can hide them under a desk or in a pocket and have a satisfying stim that’s less obvious when I’m in public.
I tried flapping, and the first time it felt awkward. But later I found myself flapping again spontaneously. It’s grown on me. And my natural reaction to intense happiness now is to flap and jump. Birds often make me this happy, and I think of a young bird trying to take off before its wings are fully developed. It’s a wonderfully Autistic way to express happiness.
I think supressing highly visible stims was bad for me. I’m sad that it became so automatic. Stimming helps me relax, and deal with sadness and anxiety so they’re less likely to overwhelm me, and get my brain in order after sensory overload. Sometimes I need to rock to get these benefits. Supressing it meant that for most of my life I was missing out on all this.
Stimming helps me think, and suppressing it into less obvious forms takes up energy and brainpower I could use for something else.
I remember sitting in assembly fidgeting with a toy and a teacher telling me to put it away so I could listen to the assembly. I knew that I would listen better with the stim toy but I was obedient at school so I wrung my hands and picked my nails instead. Mostly, though, I stunted my stimming myself, due to my internalised ableism, self-consciousness and not wanting to stand out and get teased.
But I’ve read about other Autistic children being taught by parents and teachers not to stim, as part of ‘therapy’, having their hands held down, often with the phrase ‘quiet hands’.
I hope that children who have been abused this way will one day be able to learn to stim again, as I have.
Some stims, like head banging and nail picking, are harmful to the stimmer. But, as chaoticidealism wrote, the best way to deal with this is not to just supress the harmful stim but to replace it with another stim that fulfils the same need.
It’s only ableism that stops us seeing non-harmful stims for what they are – natural, beneficial and beautiful.