Autism and Stimming: Why Do Autistic People Stim?
My emotions and feelings come with big energy spikes that are visible (and often audible) in waves of stimming (jumping, flapping, pacing, speaking and singing to myself, and making other noises).
Stimming is short for "self-stimulatory behavior" (which I don't personally love) because people's minds seem to go straight to the gutter if they don't have the additional context and understanding of what it's like to be a stimmy-sensitive human in an overwhelming world.
Outsiders may not understand what we're stimulating (our senses) and why that stimulation is crucial to how Autistic People regulate the energy that races through our bodies or the triggers of those energy surges (emotional and sensory experiences).
Some examples of stimming include:
Movement stims: Jumping, pacing, spinning - that get energy out quickly
Tactile stims: touching things pleasing to the touch (such as soft fabrics and smooth surfaces).
Visual stims: stimming by watching objects
Auditory stims: stimming by listening to repetitive sounds (such as rain sticks, noises toys and other objects make, or the same song, part of a song, playlist, or album, repeatedly on a loop).
Olfactory stims: stims of smelling things we like over and over again
Taste stims: we can stim by eating our favorite foods because of their taste or texture
Mental stims: stimming in the mind - invisible secret stimming.
Stims that express emotion: EX: hand flapping and rocking (you can tell a LOT about how I'm feeling based on how my hands and body are moving). I have happy and nervous hand flaps and comfortable and uncomfortable body rocking.
Vocal stimming: Making sounds, speaking, and singing to oneself are my go-to stims that soothe and relax me the most but are the least tolerated by others.
Stealth stims or "socially acceptable" stims: discrete visual stims, mental stimming, hair twirling, finger strumming, tapping, pen clicking, toe and leg bouncing, keeping your hands in your pockets or hidden so people don't see them moving
Destructive stims: punching, kicking, biting, ripping, or breaking things
The magic of stimming is that outsiders are not in control the stim, I am (even when my stimming gets out of control and I lose control). Because I am in “control” the resulting sensory input is not a surprise that shocks my senses, allowing me to tolerate things I could never tolerate if other people were doing the same to me (because the unpredictability would be overwhelming to me).
Additionally, when I am stimming because of discomfort, stimming can helps to ease and distract me from unease or pain. If I am cold, bouncing up and down and rocking takes some of that coldness away, for example.
If the discomfort I need to displace is more intense (such as with extreme grief, emotional, or physical pain), my stimming may also be more intense (and can escalate to self-harm, punching, and biting things and myself).
For example, when I slammed my hand in the door of our RV, it hurt REALLY BAD, and my instant reaction was to BITE the opposite hand in the same place, HARD (which was causing minor injury to my uninjured hand).
Creating pain I had control over was a way to cancel out the extreme pain I had no control over (so that I could manage my discomfort at the moment in my own way).
In those moments when pain or emotions are high, I don't always make logical decisions. However, there is a reason behind my choices (even if they puzzle outsiders).
Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions about stimming and its function (even in many Autism spaces).
One misunderstanding people have about stimming is that they think Autistics are the ONLY humans who stim.
While Autistic People are often known for stimming (because it's literally in the diagnostic criteria for Autism), we are not the only people (or even animals) who stim and sensory seek.
Everyone stims (some). Even animals stim. (Have you ever seen a captive animals pacing in the zoo?) However, Autistic People stim more, and the ways we stim are often more intense (and may even be harmful).
Stimming and fidgeting are common responses to raised energy levels (energy created by excitement, pain, anxiety, and stress).
Many people will fidget and move from time to time, more when nervous, excited, or uncomfortable because they experience a surge of energy in their bodies when strong emotions or sensations are felt. I feel these surges of energy constantly.
Autism (and a few other forms of NeuroDivergence) can cause a person to experience an increased (or decreased) intensity of one's emotional and sensory experiences.
NeuroDivergence can also influence the strength of people's impulse control. Those of us who struggle more with impulsivity (ADHD and other conditions common in Autistic people can make this more complex for some of us) may have difficulty (or be unable) to stop ourselves from stimming even when stims are harmful or dangerous or we want to stop (especially when emotions, overwhelm, or discomfort is high).
Non-autistic people and those without ADHD or NeuroDiverence that impacts one's sense of impulse control may feel the same energy levels rising in their bodies when stressed or anxious but find it easier to control their urges to move, transferring that energy into more "socially acceptable" forms of movement (such as toe tapping, pen clicking, and other less noticeable stims and fidgets).
Something I wish people understood about my stimming is that when I am uncomfortable, I stim more and have less control over that stimming. I can transfer stims to tone them down too (if the pressure to stim and move is small enough).
Because the world is often an uncomfortable place for me (due to the intensity of my sensory processing), a lot of my stimming is in response to the discomfort I experience (which could be avoided if the world were more accessible and people were more understanding and empathetic of NeuroDivergence).
Autistic People are often already on edge because of how the world is overwhelming by design (a design we had no input in). In contrast, non-autistic people find themselves triggered less frequently by their environments because the environment is tailored to their needs and feelings.
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