What is Stimming?

A big topic about the autistic community is that of stimming. Some people have been often known to refer to it as fidgeting. I would say for me, and likely for many other autistic people, that’s where a line would be drawn.

You see, most people stim. But it is often referred to as fidgeting. It’s often excess energy being burned off.

So what is stimming, and why is it different for the neuro-divergent community?

A stim is short for self-stimulation behavior or actions. I feel the need to address two sides of the same coin. Two conditions in particular share stimming as a trait. Autism and ADHD. I fall in both columns. In conversations I’ve had with other autistic individuals, I rarely hear them say identify a reason for stimming that is anywhere near my oft used main reason.

But in talking to individuals with ADHD, there is some commonality.

My main reason for stimming is for focus. I need actions that can occupy enough of my brain so I don’t go in a million different directions for the task at hand. These stims can take many different forms. Sometimes I do them at the same time as my task. Sometimes, i hop back and forth between my stims and my task.

However, I also stim for other reasons. If I’m nervous, happy, sad…

From the autistic perspective, stimming can almost be considered additional forms of communication. Considering I often find myself unable to find words that I think are an accurate depiction of how I am feeling, stimming is part of body language that communicates as loud, if not louder than my words.

Also, stimming can alter sensory perceptions. Given that sensory processing is a big highlight of the autistic experience, adjusting your sensory perceptions can be helpful. For instance, even when I am supposed to be standing still, I am never really standing still. I’m readjusting how I stand. I’m shifting weight back and forth…almost swaying at times.

Stimming is also related to masking, because the regulation that stimming provides. It allows autistic people to keep level enough to mask in front of others.

When I think back to my childhood, I can’t necessarily identify one particular stim. My mother would always tell me “STOP FIDGETING!” But, there is one thing that comes to mind. It is a stim, but not one of physical movement.

I always had this propensity to ask the question “What if?”.

I drove my mother crazy with it at times. But even now, I am inquisitive. I always want to know what’s going on, why it’s going on, and how exactly it works. My imagination ran a little more wild as a child though.

My mother always swore up and down that she was going to write a children’s book one day with all of my best “What If” hits. She’s already a published author, and an accomplished artist. Hopefully she sees this and decides to work on it now that she’s retired.

Thanks for reading through this one. This is week two of the “Take The Mask Off” campaign. Please search this hashtag on social media and read, watch and listen to perspectives from other autistic people.

Origin Story

So a day after posting my last article as a contribution to the #TakeTheMaskOff campaign, one particular thing occurred to me. My origin story is one I haven’t told. However, educating people and giving them a chance to understand autism through one’s lens requires the credibility of telling them where you started. It helps to shape and identify the journey that you are attempting to communicate.

I could try to go back and recall every time in public school that I was singled out because I was acting “weird”, “odd”, or “quirky”. Whether I was being called down for something by a teacher or receiving weird looks and rejection from peers, there is just too much to try to account for accurately.

So I’ll fast-forward to three years ago. We had friends over one evening. After what was apparently received as a pointed exchange between myself and one of them, in a later conversation with my wife, she commented that she thought I might be autistic. She’s been teaching for awhile. Teachers, when they have multiple students with certain conditions in their classes, can begin to identify people with those conditions.

So after my wife told me about this, I did some reading, and I thought “that sure sounds like me”. However, the idea quickly slipped off my radar.

Fast-forward another year…

The job I was working at the time was taking a bit of a stress on me. It was the second job in a row where the company I worked for hired out of their area or region for the first time. I was trying to do my best to get along and fit in, all while trying to do the job I was hired to do. On one particular day, I truly don’t remember what went on that day (shows you how important it was), but I truly thought I had a mental breakdown that day. I found myself in the grocery store just muttering to myself. I couldn’t process what my inner voice was saying to me.

While I was better the next day, I was still worried about what had happened. The only thing I knew to do was to try and get in to see a therapist. Thanks to living in the middle of nowhere, it took an entire MONTH for that to happen.

A month later, and I have a clear head when I go see this therapist. He was fairly quick to identify me as autistic, of which he reaffirmed several times after. It turns out that day I thought I had a breakdown, I actually had a bit of a meltdown.

Having a meltdown was, and still is, unfamiliar territory for me. Whether stated, or just perception of being implied, I always thought I had to keep things like that to myself. Sometimes I’ve been able to deal with things. Other times, it’s been enough for me to just shutdown. So for something to effect me severe enough to have a meltdown is pretty bad.

You see, this is what masking can do to someone who is autistic. Yes, everyone does do some masking. But when an autistic person masks, they are being the complete opposite of their being. It taxes us sometimes so much that we are unable to compensate.

Masking causes health concerns…

That will dovetail in to the week three topic. Please, check the #TakeTheMaskOff hashtag on social media. Lots of autistic voices speaking up during this time.

Tunnel… Car Horn… Echo…

It’s a tunnel. The tunnel is fairly non-descript. You know it’s a tunnel with a road through it because of the cars you see and hear around you. You know it’s probably in mountains at lower elevations because it looks dry and barren all around before you enter the tunnel.

This is the Queen Creek Tunnel. It is along Highway 60 in eastern Arizona, between the towns of Miami and Superior. If you are heading west on this road, shortly after you exit the tunnel, you will exit Devil’s Canyon, and the desert floor will lay below you.

Superior to Miami has been probably my most favorite drive in the entire country. The formations through the canyon are a sight to behold. There are so many interesting things to look at. The drive it self is engaging as it twists, turns, and changes elevation. Eventually you pass through the small community of Top Of The World, only then to head back down in to Miami.

One of my more favorite parts of this drive is the Queen Creek Tunnel. I’d love to drive through there with a window down and honk my horn just to listen to the way it echos. It makes me happy.

This is one example of one of the things I would do that was out of the way and didn’t bother people. I didn’t have to worry about what others thought, except for the random other vehicle that would be in the tunnel with me at the same time.

As an autistic person, I don’t always have that luxury. I’m often around people that won’t, and may never understand me. That’s always too bad considering the effort I put in to trying to understand them. So I would mask. Yeeeessssss, everyone masks to some extent, but for me, I’m often taking guesses at what I am doing. It doesn’t feel natural. I don’t understand it, and I learn nothing in the process.

Masking is an exhausting process. There’s no time to be able to turn it off. Our “eccentricities” are not so easily written off by others as they are when it’s a non-autistic person. In the times behaviors aren’t written off, sometimes some nicety is used to communicate the desired change in behavior. It is full of subtext. This subtext is something you’re likely to pick up on if you are a non-autistic. However, for autistic people, those chances are slim. It’s real sapping trying to figure out what someone wants out of us when they won’t tell us.

There is a campaign that has started this week, led by some prominent people in the online autistic community. It’s called “Take The Mask Off”.

The topics and discussions are designed to educate about masking, what it is, and the effect on autistic individuals who must mask in the current society.

Since learning that I am autistic, I have gotten to the point I rarely mask anymore. I’m sure those close to me have seen that. It doesn’t change what I think about people. I just can’t always interact in THEIR desired manner. It’s not healthy for me. I will still make “social adjustments” here and there. However, these actions are by rote, and I still don’t always understand them. But I do understand that these adjustments help make others more comfortable.

Please take in all the content for the #TakeTheMaskOff campaign that you possibly can over the next six weeks.  Maybe it can help you learn more about autistic people, why they are the way they are, and be able to communicate with them a little more on their level. After all, this world is about compromise. A little push. A little pull. We are ALL better off when we meet in the middle.