Stimming is short for self-stimulating, which doesn’t sound great so you can see why it is shortened to stimming. A quick Google search (other search engines are available) will tell you that stimming is repetitive movements, sounds or use of objects. So that’s straight forward then what else is there to say? Well quite a lot actually, so I thought I’d give it a go.
I should say that these are my thoughts on the subject and reflect my experiences; my views are in no way designed or intended to pass judgment on or take away from the experiences of others.
First things first lets get rid of a falsehood, whilst autistics and other neurodiverse individuals do stim and quite noticeably at times it is not unique to them, far from it, everybody stims without exception. You may not rock; flap or make repetitive sounds but you and everyone else stims from the moment we are born to point at which we die (excluding some individuals with medical conditions that preclude the ability to stim). It is a natural physiological process that helps us to regulate our nervous system, people stim when excited or stressed, they stim for concentration and out of habit, mainly though we stim because it feels good take things in through our senses. If you doubt this try sitting perfectly still for just one minute, the odds are this will take more effort than you think.
So we all stim, so what’s the big deal? If we all do it then what is there to discuss? Well when was the last time you sat and watched someone rock back and forth in a restaurant, or walk down the road on their tiptoes? When can you recall being in a meeting and sat across from a person flapping their hands or heard someone make repetitive noises in the supermarket? More importantly if you have or did what would you / did you think? Would you really think nothing of it, would you wonder what was wrong with the person, would it make you uncomfortable? As an autistic person I’ve been stared at, asked to stop because it makes someone uncomfortable and on many occasions physically stopped from stimming.
However caring you are, however well intentioned the chances are that you view this behaviour in away that detracts from me as a person, if you wish you could help me stop, if you feel sorry for me, if you think something must be wrong, if you try to find solutions for me so I don’t have to stim, if you assume I am mentally ill or lack intellectual capacity, in fact if you make any judgment about me or anyone else that is stimming then you are doing them a disservice. You are not judged for stimming so why should anybody else be?
It may be that you are still thinking you don’t stim or that when you do it’s a little thing, well it may be a small stim but you do stim. If you have done or do any of the following then your stimming:
- Chewing on a pen or pencil
- Biting your lip
- Leaning back on a chair
- Cracking your fingers
- Tapping a pen
- Chewing gum
- Fiddling with Blutak
- Swinging on a swing
- Tapping your foot
This list is just an example, any motion or action that is repetitive in nature and that provides sensory stimulation is stimming; the difference is that some people need a lot more stimulation to meet their needs and it is much harder to do this in a way that is deemed socially appropriate.
Having defined what stimming is I am now going to say that the above definition is too narrow; it takes a physical view of stimulation seeing it as an action taken to physically affect the senses. There is more to stimming than this in fact I would argue that if you have a sense then it can be used to stim. Images can be a source of stimming for some whether those images are static or moving, a stereotype for autistics is that they enjoy watching things spin. Then there is sound, now I hate clocks and would rid the world of them if I could, this however is not true for everyone, some people find the rhythm of a ticking clock relaxing and almost everyone finds music stimulating in one way or another.
I am also of the opinion that it is not only possible to stim with emotions but that they are a key component in all forms of stimming. If stimming helps us to regulate and fix us in our environment, then it equally generates emotional responses both good and bad. You could ask the question, when you stim is it the sensory input that is being repetitively sought or the emotional response to it? I suspect that it is both and much more, the important thing for me is the recognition of a wider set of variables that allows me to see that stimming meets many needs and whilst almost always a positive, sometimes it can be destructive.
Some stimming can reinforce the narrative that we have about ourselves and it may be that we seek this out because the known is more comforting. This can lead us in to a spiral of negative actions and consequently thoughts. At the extreme end of this are self injurious behaviours, which could be viewed as stimming, whilst this may be a contentious thought can it be denied that substance abuse is self stimulating and repetitive? Again this behaviour is not unique all of us are capable of negative stimming and will undoubtedly indulge in this at times, the difference again is in degrees the variance being in the quantity of stimuli needed to meet the need.
So what to take from this? Well let’s start with the fact that whilst many things mark us as different such as our neurological make up, there are also commonalities and it is these very commonalities that we should focus on. When you next see someone stimming or if you have an autistic friend or relative, don’t make assumptions, don’t judge remember that nothing unusual is happening, we all behave this way. Would you want someone to ask you if you were ok every time you chewed the end of your pen or to stop you tapping your foot along to the music? The times that neurodivergents need help to stop stimming are the same as those for everyone. It’s when the stims are destructive and causing harm. Just remember that anybody stuck in a cycle of negative behaviours needs support not judgment on censure.
Aspie and Proud