The main description used for stimming refers to this as “self-stimulatory behaviours” or any action which provides stimulation. Stimming is a universal human trait. It can present as tapping pens, shaking legs, pacing up and down, twirling hair, biting nails. There can be visual stims such as light, stims through taste, smell, vocals like humming and auditory ones through listening to sounds or music. When it comes to stimming for Autistic people, it just so happens that we stim a great deal more and usually with greater depth and length than neurotypical people do. ADHDers have been known to stim a lot too. Being able to stim can help our emotions and provide us focus. I might stim a lot when I am anxious or stressed about something, yet also do this when I feel joy or excitement. These things absolutely do help us regulate ourselves but to think of stimming as solely being about this is only scratching the surface.
A Deeper Insight into Stimming
When I was a child, one of the early stims I had involved me picking up any item I could find to shake or rub them between my fingers. This could of been through remote controllers, toys, pens and so on. Developing this stim, as with most, happened unconsciously and I didn’t even realise what I was doing. Usually this stim would be displayed when I was focused on particular games or movies that I was heavily invested in. Anything around my interests that provided me deep joy would result in me stimming this way. I believe this type of stim was a way for me to immerse myself in those fictional worlds or events as though I was experiencing what my favourite characters were. Very early on I was put down for this (including by family members) as this was seen as “weird”. Like most Autistic people, I learned to suppress my need to stim as a result of being shunned.
A common pattern I see among stories in the Autistic community is that we tend to go through a process in our lives where we learn to reconnect with our long lost stims. There is even a children’s book based on this titled “The Boy Who Lost His Stims” At a young age we tend to receive feedback from people who observe our stimming and call us “weird” “strange” or other labels, similar to my story from above. Unconsciously (and consciously) we begin to suppress this to keep ourselves safe from stigma, which is one of the more common ways the Autistic masking response starts to develop.
Stimming, the more I understand it, is a core aspect of Autistic embodiment. It is a way for us to express ourselves, explore and engage in the world. There is a link between stimming and the euphoric Autistic joy that many of us can connect to. Some have described our way of feeling joy as a “transcendent joy” which I believe to be true. Stimming in some forms can allow us to reach a flow state, which is where we become so engrossed in our activity that we are able to shut out everything else going on around us. There is an inner peace and harmony we can cultivate through embracing our stims.
Forcing Autistic people to comply with neuronormative standards of movement and expression (such as whole body listening) and refusing our stims has dangerous consequences on our wellbeing and sense of self. This kind of suppression is usually what leads to the development of harmful stims, where we participate in stimming that is likely to hurt ourselves or people around us. If our natural stimming needs are unmet and forced away from us, we have no choice but to resort to these ways instead.
To stim is a way of being. It is a key custom of Autistic culture that can also manifest as an art form. Autistic people have shared experiences of transformative practices that helped them reconnect with their stims (see Nick Walker’s beautiful dissertation on Aikido and ParaTheatrical ReSearch rituals) I have been involved with Yoga for nearly 10 years, something I began before I knew I was Autistic. I believe this helps me process my sensory experience and my stimming needs as I get to explore my own body and energy.
Stimming might be displayed as a dance. The Autistic community have created the term ‘Stim dancing’ and developed this as technique and mode of being. Autistic people who engage in stim dancing develop a powerful rhythm to the point they become one with their stims. This dance helps Autistic people to process the sensory information in their space and bodies, including sound, vocals, visuals, proprioception and balance. Practices such as martial arts, yoga, rituals and dancing would be classed as forms of stimming.
For many years I did not recognise I stimmed or needed to stim. I have been able to rekindle with my stims in the past year through discovering various stim items and activities which nourish me. This year at Autscape, there was an activity revolving around lighting and glow sticks that evoked my need for visual stims. It is hard to put into words why that activity resonated with me so much. There was just something dazzling and mystical about the experience that reignited a flame within me. I have since gathered lava lamps and other various styles of lights to display in my room which are able to elicit a wonderful flow state for me. While writing this, I had recently visited an aquarium shop with Autistic friends that was tremendously euphoric and I became immersed by the sounds, movement and visuals of the fish and their tanks. Deliciously stimmy indeed. Now I want to live with fish tanks around me and experience that stim more in my life.
Although mostly in private, I still stim the way I did as a child through rubbing or shaking items in my hands whenever I feel excitement or joy. I wear stim rings and bring stim items with me to most major events. I am unlearning what I previously internalised to be ‘wrong’ and I am now allowing myself to move in flow with my body and stims in whichever way is right for me. Without my stims, I cease to be me.
Preventing stimming does not just trigger emotional dysregulation for Autistic people, it denies us our very essence. Our stims are an essential part of our being and a core feature of Autistic embodiment. It is imperative we are not forced to adopt neuronormative standards and suppress our stimming. Reconnecting to our stims as young people or adults can be completely life changing. Perhaps it is through practices such as martial arts, swimming, yoga or dancing that one could discover their stims. It might be through Autistic spaces that we are able to find this again by feeling safe to freely move and express ourselves. Embracing our stims is not easy and requires us to work through the internalised ableism built up over our lives.
All Autistic people would benefit from finding ways to get in tune with their stims and embody our true natures. Stimming is deeply intertwined with our Autistic identity and it can provide us with experiences that most of the population may never be able to feel. It is our way of life.
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