What’s one of the most surefire ways to identify an Autistic out in the open? What’s one of the primary ways Autistic people express themselves, and the first thing we are either forced to, or strive to suppress via social pressure, in order to pass as neurotypical?
In short order: stimming is the verb connotation of stim, short for self-stimulatory, which refers to activities, often of a repetitive nature, that stimulate and regulate the sensory, cognitive, and nervous system.
Stimming is something everyone does. In fact, it could be argued that all species, not just humans, stim in one form or another. Perhaps any living being with a sensory system does it. That goes into speculative territory, sure. But the fact remains: everyone stims.
And yet stimming is mostly recognized in Autistics. Why? Because we stim differently. We stim more, too.
Autistics are more sensitive. We have a chaotic and complex sensory system, which requires stimming to regulate, and to gather and channel energy. Thus we need to stim more often, and sometimes differently. This was covered in a previous entry, where I discuss the popularization of stim toys such as fidget spinners.
Stimming and other actions are normalized among non-autistic populations, because their stimming is often more subtle, and viewed as more acceptable. The way we do it, isn’t.
For months now, I have observed the different ways that Autistics and non-autistics stim, and I have come to this conclusion: while there are differences in Autistic and non-autistic stimming, one major difference is that common Autistic stims are often stronger/more intense variations of non-autistic stims. Whether vocal shouts, hand gestures and motions, leg-bouncing or other subtle movements, our stims are often not too different, just more frequent and visible.
Many of our stims are also different, however, as, after all, they are a form of self-expression, and every Autistic is unique. Stims, despite being a universal and common trait of life, are still deeply personal and depend on the individual. This, however, also means that they need to be respected.
And this is not a bad thing at all. It, again, simply reflects what we know about Autism, and what Autistics have known since forever: stimming regulates and powers up the senses. And in our case, can even help us take advantage of the unique and often supernatural strengths of Autistic sensory perception, while mitigating the inevitable downsides that come with everything in life.
There is much research and investigation, even from fellow Autistics, that go into ways to cope with sensory overloads, how to generate extra energy to complete tasks, and more. And while these projects are well-intentioned and should continue, they seem to overlook a natural tool we have at our disposal: stimming.
Almost all of the strengths, as well as challenges of Autism can often boil down to sensory issues – in fact, this is arguably the most defining trait of Autism, with every Autistic experiencing it in a slightly different way, but still with common links. And we all have our own unique stims alongside them: coping mechanisms, and tools, to regulate and energize ourselves.
An Autistic person’s stims are as unique as the Autistic person. Each Autistic will prefer to stim in a different way, but a common and universally recognized one is the hand flap, and many stims are variations of this. But it doesn’t stop there, by any means. It can vary from subtle things like leg-bouncing, hair twirling, tapping, to bolder and more noticeable things, like spinning, jumping, rocking.
Stims can range from unrefined and erratic movements, to graceful, controlled stims – something a lot of people seem to believe isn’t possible, but in fact really is. I often try to innovate and create new stims for myself – these stims are often created with practice, and are subsequently more precise and controlled, and purposeful. I will make a future blog post regarding utilitarian applications for stims that I think will be of further use to Autistic people. Sometimes intentional stimming can be as wonderful and beneficial, if not more, than spontaneous, recreational stimming.
Autistic people describe stims as empowering, uplifting, and euphoric. Stims are not only used to regulate, but to energize, enhance, and deepen our perception. They can be used to channel the buildup of energy we feel inside us, and apply them into our environment, and in some cases, to shield us from negative sensory input altogether. In fact, the application of stims into our daily lives are endless, and by creatively exploring them, we can find other uses for stimming.
Sensory issues and emotional intensity can cause strife and overwhelming feelings, but creates gifts: deep empathy, hyper-awareness, excellent memory, the ability to form connections with your environment. Without stims, it can be hard to regulate such intense experiences. In fact, I would argue that stimming is a cornerstone of being Autistic. It is more than just mere fidgeting or a pastime for us: for us, it is about survival.
ABA practitioners and similar groups of people stop us from stimming, despite the fact that the happiest, most successful, and most thriving Autistics are often those who were free to stim, and free to explore their Autistic body and mind the way they saw fit. In fact, through incorporating stimming into our daily lives, through my daily life, I saw the benefits really early on. I could handle things easier, I felt more insightful, and I felt more a drive to indulge in my passions without fear or shame.
As a musician, incorporating stimming into my technique greatly enhanced my abilities. Many Autistics I know who are martial artists, musicians, artists, and more, channel stimming into their practices to enhance their performance to the excellent levels we often see.An Autistic person without their stims, is like a Jedi without the Force, or a bird without wings (a more proper analogy, and a fascinating one, given that birds also flap their wings). We will not survive long without it. Anti-Autistic ableism comes in two forms: people who think Autistics are diseased, and doomed. And people who fear Autistics. And I think stopping Autistic people from stimming is born of the latter: the fear that through stimming, we will be further empowered to be who we truly are. Through stimming, we gain the freedom to explore, and change, the world as we know it, and expand on our own gifts and talents.
And the solution? Do it anyway. Be the resistance: stim openly and without fear, and do not let anybody stop you from doing it. Obviously, be judicious and careful about it when necessary, to protect yourself.
And do not be afraid to innovate. Hand-flapping is fun, but go beyond that. Turn your stims into an expression of yourself, an extension of your being. And show the world who you really are.
Happy International Day of the Stim, my fellow Autistics. Our time is now. Take the mask off.