One of the most commonly discussed characteristics, and indeed, a defining characteristic of Autistic people is stimming. Autistic people talk about what enjoyment they get out of it, and what kind of stims they love. Behaviourists talk about ways to extinguish it. Parents either consider it troubling or perplexing. In Autistic culture, stims are shared and revered as something to be celebrated and accepted.
Many are in agreement that visible or unique stims are one of the easiest ways to identify if somebody is Autistic. But what exactly are stims, and why are they so important – and so controversial?
Let’s start with the basic definition:
“Self-stimulatory behavior, also known as stimming and self-stimulation, is the repetition of physical movements, sounds, or repetitive movement of objects common in individuals with developmental disabilities, but most prevalent in people with autism.”
This definition was taken from Wikipedia. As with all definitions on Wikipedia, though, this is partially true – but incomplete. It is true that people with developmental disabilities, including Autistics, often stim. But it is also true that people without developmental disabilities stim.
If you consider what truly constitutes stimming – repetitive motions, and actions meant to stimulate the senses(self-stimulation), then it becomes clear that everyone stims, and that there are many different forms of stimming. Go to your local sports stadium, or a concert, or even a local party, and you will hear lots of cheering and shouts, such as “Woo-hoo!” or “Yeeeeeaaaaah!”, or whistling. You will see people dancing to music by fist-pumping, or waving hands from side to side. Stims come in all shapes and sizes – from vocal, to visual, to audio, to motion. As a general rule, if it interacts with the sensory system, it can be channeled into a stim. Motion is the most common one to see, as it is most easily detectable. A lot of people gesture with hands as they talk as well – arguably another form of stimming.
Now, go into your average classroom – and observe the students carefully. You will start to see students scribbling, bouncing their legs, tapping their fingers on their desk, sometimes even humming melodies to themselves as they work. Most of the time these actions are merely considered fidgeting. But fidgeting is also a form of stimming: you are stimulating your senses to help you focus on the task at hand, or keep your body occupied.
It is correct that Autistics stim more than others, but non-autistic people assume this is so because we stim in unusual and unique ways. Autistic brains and nervous systems are wired differently than the average neurotypical individual. Autistic people have a more intense and complex sensory experience of the world, meaning we need to regulate, direct, and recharge our systems more than non-autistic people.
In addition, we tend to have minds that focus in really deeply on certain senses or topics (sometimes known as Autistic hyperfocus) , perhaps as a direct result of our acute perception. When something captures our senses enough that we are drawn into it, we focus in on it intensely. This is sometimes seen as a bad thing, but in my view, can almost always be turned into something useful. Either way, it means that we may need to stim more often in order to focus our minds or self-regulate. In my personal view, by extension it means that if we learn to master and apply stimming skillfully, we can develop an even higher level of concentration, focus, and self-regulation. Thus, stimming should be encouraged rather than discouraged. I will expand on this in a different blog post.
I am a strong advocate for exercise and physical activity for Autistics, as the movement can effectively serve as extreme stimulation to help deal with sensory issues and anxiety. We can channel our stims into these activities, too – and incorporating stims into physical activities like gymnastics, martial arts, or even sports, could make an Autistic person potentially enhance their performance in these and other areas. Even incorporating stimming into music can greatly enhance it – I say this as a trained Autistic musician. More on that in future entries, too.
The Autistic community has long advocated for stimming to be accepted and normalized. We have even recommended the usage of objects, toys, or items (dubbed “stimmies” by some), to be used for this purpose. For years, these calls to action went unnoticed. Then suddenly, almost out of the blue, they came to fruition in the form of a fad: fidget spinners.
Suddenly, people who needed to stim or otherwise move for a variety of reasons – usually neurodivergent people – Autistics, people diagnosed with ADHD, kinesthetic/kinetic learners, people facing high levels of stress or anxiety – found a cheaply produced commercial item that they could use to help them cope with their need to fidget in order to focus or regulate their feelings.
However, like with every new invention, fidget spinners became a controversy of their own. Because of how popular they were suddenly becoming, neurotypical people also joined in, buying them en masse. Ordinarily, this would not be seen as a problem. But while everybody stims or fidgets, not everybody depends on it to a high degree. So the result is that neurotypical children often play with stim toys in ways they weren’t meant to be used, sometimes deliberately disrupting others while kids who really need them are using them out of necessity. This is, not unexpectedly, followed by some teachers and schools starting to resent fidget spinners, sometimes even calling to have them banned from classrooms. This, in despite of the benefits toward neurodivergent or disabled children.
When this realization dawned upon the Autistic community, along with other neurodivergent communities, and the broader social justice and progressive communities (at least those who care about neurodiversity or disability rights), it sparked outrage. And the outrage was justified. The Autistic community that had advocated relentlessly for years for the right to openly stim with or without items, and members of other neurological minority groups or with other disabilities were being negatively affected, being unable to access an item designed to help them in an educational environment thanks to some people abusing its’ usage. And now, fidget spinners were on the verge of being banned from spaces where they were needed most, just because some people were misusing them.
In response to these criticisms, neurotypicals started to suggest that spinners be sold in the form of prescriptions, thus restricting access to only those who do need them. Or, at the very least, marketed in such a way that it was seen as a tool only for Autistics and other disabled/neurodivergent students. I can see why this idea seemed clever on the surface.
There was, however, one flaw in this line of thinking. Yes, it is true that stim toys primarily benefit a very specific group of people. That Autistics advocated for it primarily, and are one of the groups that need it most. But, suppose fidget spinners were marketed specifically for us and other neurodivergent people rather than for everybody. There would be far less customers, and thus less of an incentive to produce as much. In addition, as Autistic activist Kassiane noted, they would likely be categorized as medical rather than under ordinary commercial goods, and this may increase the price even further.
This is in addition to the fact that, in the end, everybody stims, and commercializing fidget spinners and similar gadgets so that they become available to the general population ultimately serves one of the Autistic community’s ultimate goals: to normalize stimming, thus demonstrating that everybody does it, regardless of who may need it more.
So, this leads to a dilemma: we cannot stop people from misusing fidget spinners or stem their production to only serve us, and unfortunately we may not be able to stop fidget spinners from not being permitted in classrooms without massive protests in favor of them. So, what is to be done?
There is a third option, one that some Autistics like myself have used all our lives, and that most of us could easily learn: creativity and innovation. Among the Autistic community, and even the larger population, there are infinite ways to stim. Some common ones include flapping or rocking. Others can include running, jumping, or spinning. My personal favourite stims include running from place to place, pacing, or swinging objects around. When the needs of other neurodivergent people are taken into context, another path becomes clear: why rely on fidget spinners when you can construct your own stim toys? They don’t even have to be built so much as modified. Or one can even use everyday items as stim toys, the way I would commonly utilize rulers or meter sticks, or even pencils, or really, anything linear in shape that can fit into my handgrip.
In my opinion, this approach will benefit everyone. There is no “right” way to stim, and there certainly does not need to be only one kind of stim or fidget toy that everyone has to use. Everybody stims slightly differently than others. Therefore, it makes sense that we may use different items to do it. Some may use sticks. Some may use squeeze-toys. Some may use rulers, or pencils, as I often do. Or, in some cases, a person can take the time and effort to build and customize their own stim toys in a way that suits them and is optimized for their specific needs. For some people, this will make stimming more meaningful and helpful to them, as they are doing it using their very own creation.
I currently use impromptu stimming tools, and am in the process of building some of my own. I find that this approach has helped me far more than any commercialized fidget product ever could, although I do have an interest in trying out a spinner just to see what it feels like. (Update: I did. I think they’re alright, though I would still prefer to continue to construct my own stimmies. I still like fidget spinners and encourage their use for anyone who like them, though. Autistic or not.)
In short? Stim toys can be improvised, or constructed. Building them may not be for everyone, but for those who are willing and able? It could be the perfect option. There is no need to rely solely on one specific product, when virtually any item at all can be used for stimming, provided it is safe.
By all means, if you are most comfortable with a fidget spinner, buy one. Obtain as many as you desire. However, the potential for innovation with stim toys should not be overlooked. We may well end up creating a brighter future for Autistics and other neurodivergent people around the world.
And alongside inventing new stimmies and using old ones – normalize and encourage fellow Autistics to openly stim. It gives us strength, power, and the ability to regulate ourselves and our surroundings. And there is no reason for us not to do it.