By Rose Marie Maughan
What is Stimming? If you had asked me this question three years ago, I would have said “I have no idea, tell me.” It’s true that we learn something new every day, but it is our hearts that decide if we want to listen to it, and how we use this learning. Since becoming a Traveller mother to an autistic child, I have learned so many important things that your child and the entire autistic community needs us to know, to understand and to respect. One of these things is Stimming.
We all stim; even though we don’t realise it.
I have learned that Stimming is a very normal human thing to do. We all stim; even though we don’t realise it. So, what is Stimming? It is the name we give to a range of things autistic people do to maintain balance and order in their lives. Often these are movements, and these are the stims that usually get mentioned in books or websites – spinning, rocking and flapping hands and so on.
What about the rest of us? Well, if you have ever jumped up and down in excitement, held your head in despair, or clapped and cheered in delight, or slammed a door in anger, then you will start to understand what stims are for. They are for everything that we experience, and everything that we think matters to us and are vital in order to be able to carry on our daily lives. It is all about feeling in control. For autistic people, this world is often a place that robs them of control. They are told they are not able, that they cannot do this, that they must do as others say, or that their feelings or actions or words are incorrect.
Imagine being told every day that how you experience the world, and how you react to it is wrong. It can be hard to deal with the emotions anyone would feel in that situation, and for autistics, the solution is to use those same methods we all use – stims – to regulate their feelings, to release stress, and to express their frustration. When those experiences occur daily, and on top of that, the experiences of the world are extra vivid, then it is not surprising that most autistic people become very skilled at using stims.
Autistic people become experts in using Stimming techniques just to keep track.
We use other types of stims too. For example we might pace up and down or tap a pen while thinking through a problem. Autistics use stims in this way too. While the first kind – jumping, flapping or humming – are physical stims, this second type are mental stims used to manage and calm and order their thoughts. Some mental stims are not even visible. They happen completely inside the person’s mind, like a clock ticking away. These have been called Conlon’s Metronome and act just like a musician uses a real metronome to set a pace that can slow down racing thoughts and separate ideas into small pieces that can be managed.
All this gives us an insight into the world as it is experienced through autistic senses. Everything is far more detailed than it is for the rest of us, colours are stronger, lights are brighter, slight sounds are louder, gentle touches can feel painful. Autistic thoughts mirror these senses, racing along in a dozen streams at once. It is no wonder that autistic people become such experts in using stimming techniques just to keep track. That tells us an important thing about stims. They may seem peculiar and unnecessary to us, but they serve many functions. They are useful and using them requires a lot of practice and skill. In fact autistics could teach the rest of us a lot about how to use stims in our own lives.
It doesn’t end there, though. Studies have shown that even though autistics often have their communication misunderstood by others, they actually communicate more effectively autistic to autistic than non-autistic people can between themselves. Stimming plays a part in that. Not only has a basic human stress-relief method been transformed into a subtle sensory, emotional and thought- management tool, it has also been turned into a means of communication – a kind of autistic body language and sign language in one. I have heard of autistic people carrying on a conversation across a busy room using only stims.
Stims are about fun too. A large part of what makes this effective is that they help manage emotions. Just as they can be used to calm emotions that are running out of control, they can be used to deliberately generate strong emotions or make emotions more intense. Again, this is something all humans do. Think about dancing, or singing along to your favourite song. This is why autistic people can sometimes be seen to hum happily or to rock while watching a favourite TV show, looking at photos or enjoying anything from reading a book to eating a meal. Stimming is a very natural, very human, way to respond, and that is why we should never ever try to force autistic people to stop Stimming, just as we would not tell someone at a funeral not to cry, etc.,
Stims come from inside as instinctive human responses regardless of culture.
Autistic people teach themselves to stim; however, the same stims are found all around the world and are used in the same ways. This is another strong sign that they are basic, natural human ways to act. Stims come from inside as instinctive human responses regardless of culture. There is a down side to this however. Self-harm such as head banging or biting are types of stim used to release extreme distress or frustration or pain. They do harm to the person, but if that person has not learned any alternatives, they can only work with what they have. This is where autistic adults can play an essential role by teaching younger autistics, or their parents about identifying triggers for distress, learning alternative responses, and finding ways to move from self-harm to something less destructive.
Used well, stims can make life so much better, and as non-autistic people it is important for us to learn more about Stimming and its functions, and encourage the autistic people in our lives to feel free to live in a way that’s right for them. There are over 600 different stims identified, so there is sure to be one for every occasion, and perhaps some you could use too!
Respect the fact autistic people need to stim to regulate, calm, soothe themselves.
So, what next?
We should respect the fact autistic people need to stim in order to regulate, calm and soothe themselves. Never stop autistic children from Stimming non-harmful stims such as hand flapping or wriggling fingers, etc., as you are teaching the child it is not ok to stim, it’s not ok to be themselves. This could have very damaging consequences for their self-esteem and mental health. Instead encourage your child to stim, join in with them; join in the fun. Of course as we have learned, some stims can be harmful, so it is vital we try to identify what triggers this and try to avoid it, working with your child to find a safer method. The best advice will come from the autistic community themselves. I highly recommend the following autistic led Facebook groups:
• Autism Inclusivity: www.facebook.com/groups/autisminclusivity/
• Irish Travellers in Solidarity with the Autistic Community: www.facebook.com/groups/589134508160906
• Ausome Ireland: www.facebook.com/ausomecork/
• Munster Model of Autistic Living: www.facebook.com/Munster-Model-of-Autistic -Living
• Autistic life in Motion ( Autistic Romani led): www.facebook.com/Autisticlifeinmotion/
• Autistic Allies: www.facebook.com/autisticallies
• Crimson âû: www.facebook.com/crimson8/
• Blog: Autistic zebra