Learning to stim again

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.


[Image description: my hand holding a ‘Tangle’ toy, a loop made up of pieces of curved, rubber-coated blue, green and white plastic. My thumb and the Tangle are slightly blurred because they’re moving. My wrist is resting on a wooden desk. In the background are some computer cables.]

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.

12 thoughts on “Learning to stim again

  1. This post could so easily be describing me! In school I was constantly told off for picking my fingers and fiddling with things, because it meant I “wasn’t paying attention” – even though I *knew* I concentrated better when I was moving.
    When I started learning about autism I also started learning (re-learning?) how to stim in the most effective ways. I rock a lot now, too – even though I don’t think I ever did as a child.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel like I’m fading when my anxiety gets past a certain point. Stimming helps me stay present when I’m getting overloaded. Tangles are awesome. Mine sits in my purse with silly putty and crayons.


    • What has helped me with internalised ableism is reading things by Autistic people that encourage Autistic pride. I can’t think of any articles right now but this YouTube playlist might be helpful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnylM1hI2jc&list=PLGBd3MMhFYjhHUSLRgwxJbNbUIQSizEWe

      When I started stimming again I started gradually, by doing some less stigmatised stims like swaying from side to side slightly, on my own, and I moved on to more obviously autistic-looking stims like rocking, and to stimming around people I trust. I think stim toys are helpful as well because they can let you stim in a satisfying way while looking relatively ‘normal’.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think my rubics cube was a way to convert the stim into something almost socially accepted. Do you have any stim toys you can recommend? Im not sure the one in your picture is for me but I really like toys in general.

        Im reading about autie pride a lot, started 2 years ish ago and it has REALLY helped A LOT. Havent stumbled across anything related to stimming yet before your post tho. Thank you for that! I may or may not have stimmed today before I met a new therapist. I didnt have much control over what my legs were doing. Quite an exaggerated trembling. But after a few minutes it went away and I felt better. I thought about your post as it happened. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. If you’re in the US (or able/willing to pay for international postage) I recommend this website – http://www.stimtastic.co . The things I’ve got from there that I particularly like are the Thinking Putty and Klixx. The website also has a blog with posts about stimming.

    Other stim toys I like are a human-shaped stress ball called a ‘Stress Paul’, a Koosh ball, a massage ball and string of beads that I made (I twirl it and run it between my fingers). I also have some children’s toys made of rubber. I have some sparkly things that came out of crackers that I use for visual stimming – I move them gently and watch how they reflect the light.

    You could try searching for stim toys on Tumblr for other ideas – people put pictures of their stim toys on there.

    Hope that helps!


  4. how did you start, did it feel awkward? like it was forced. ive been allowing myself to rock more often and i feel so weird, but the rocking is so nice. when i stim i get the biggest smile on my face honestly. but i feel so….idk lol i feel conflicted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it did feel awkward and forced at first but it got better with time. Is there a more subtle or less stigmatised way of stimming that feels more comfortable for you? Like rocking very slightly, or I read that it’s more socially acceptable to rock when you’re listening to music. You could practice doing that and gradually build up to stimming in a more obvious/stigmatised way.
      It might help as well to watch other Autistic people rocking or generally stimming who are confident about it – some people have posted photos/gifs/videos of themselves stimming online (eg I found some by searching ‘body stims’ on Tumblr).
      And keep telling yourself it’s ok to stim and it’s ok to look and act autistic.


  5. I never fully repressed my stims, but I’ve stopped suppressing them a lot over time. One thing that I’ve found is that combining stimming with mindfulness meditation really works well to calm me down.

    Liked by 1 person

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