I was on one of those online creative websites selling people’s designs searching under ‘neurodiversity’ when I saw a t-shirt which said ’Respect the stim!’ I thought that was pretty awesome and it got me thinking about stimming – how it is an activity which has a lot of meaning ascribed to it and how it relates to ideas of autistic pride and yes, respect.
So what is a ‘stim’? If you google it you will get this: “Self-stimulatory behaviour, also known as stimming and self-stimulation, is the repetition of physical movements, sounds, or words, or the repetitive movement of objects common in individuals with developmental disabilities and most prevalent in people with autism spectrum disorders.” Sounds a bit pathological doesn’t it?
In fact, for autistic people, stimming can be a huge positive – a way of managing anxiety and stress and feeling good and also expressing feelings like joy or excitement. Stimming tends to be something enjoyable. I often find myself stimming and I am unaware of doing it .
Stimming can be seen as political. Children who subjected to Applied Behaviour Analysis and related kinds of ‘training’ are often punished or sanctioned for stimming. Stimming is often an activity that makes us look visibly ‘different’ to the allistic folks. ‘Therapies’ (for want of a better word because they are far from therapeutic) like ABA seem to be all about making autistic people look ‘less autistic’. Apparently looking autistic causes bullying. Actually, what causes bullying is, um, bullies. The best way to address such poor behaviour as bullying people for being different is not forcing the autistic child go look more outwardly allistic but instead to make an environment – and world – for them where autistic people are respected as we are. It is not a good way of addressing bigotry to make divergent people look less divergent.
For autistic kids an adults, being forced not to stim has a load of negatives attached. One of these is that the child will probably question themselves and may well start to hate and revile who they are. Trying to look allistic when you are not is like studying for an Oscar-winning role – it is always going to be an act, no matter how proficient at it you may be and it will be hard. Squashing down who you are is not a good idea and leads to things like self-hatred and self-criticism. It goes against who you are. It is cruel. Far better to encourage autistic people to be proud of themselves and stim freely.
The pathologising of autism is often bound up in responses to stimming. That horrible term ‘quiet hands’ is often levelled at autistic kids when they are flapping their hands in joy or excitement. To me ‘quiet hands’ is telling kids to ‘stop being yourself. You are embarrassing me. Act normal’. These are not sentiments I even like to reflect in this blog and certainly not something autistic children should be told.
Stimming can be a great joy. I have a lot of my own stims – clicking fingers, saying some phrases in certain situations, wiggling my fingers and playing with fibre optic lights. When I do these things I feel completely free to be me. But it is a relatively recent thing for me to stim publicly and some of my stims even now happen behind closed doors at Whimsy Manor. That judgement at ‘looking different’, the years of bullying I endured because I didn’t quite look or act like the other kids: these things did some major damage to my sense of who I am and it still lingers many, many years afterwards.
I tend to think stimming should in fact be encouraged, providing it is not harmful (and a small proportion of stims can be harmful, in which case some harm minimisation techniques may help). Stimming helps express a number of things from joy and excitement to addressing stress and anxiety and soothing when encountering a new or otherwise scary situation. If others have an issue with the stim, that is not the fault of the person stimming. In this instance, teaching autism acceptance and respect and working to address judgemental attitudes is much more useful to my mind than stopping someone from stimming.
Stimming can be a deescalation strategy for overload for some people. Imagine how frustrating and upsetting it would be to do some deescalation when getting overloaded, and then be told not to do that anymore meaning that the person has a big meltdown and then gets punished for that! I think that kind of situation happens far too often and comes from a place where autism is not well understood and autistic people – kids and adults – are not respected.
My friend, autistic artist Prue Stevenson has done some great work on stimming, including this excellent project called ‘Stim Your Heart Out.’ You can find it here: https://www.stimyourheartout.com
So yes, respect the stim I say! Now I must go buy the t-shirt…