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.

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.

Autism with a side of…

I may be the first to tell you what I am about to tell you. Or maybe not. But it is important to know either way. Autism is a social disability. That means the disability exists because of constructs set out as “normal” within social circles.

However, further disability can and does exist in other forms. This is what is referred to as co-morbid conditions. It is not uncommon for an autistic person to have additional conditions that make up what people typically attribute to autism.

Today, I want to highlight three of these co-morbid conditions that I have, and how they can serve to exacerbate signs of autism.

OCD

First is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. In part, NIMH defines OCD with the following information:

  • Having things symmetrical or in a perfect order
  • Repeatedly checking on things, such as repeatedly checking to see if the door is locked or that the oven is off
  • Some individuals with OCD also have a tic disorder. Motor tics are sudden, brief, repetitive movements, such as eye blinking and other eye movements, facial grimacing, shoulder shrugging, and head or shoulder jerking

Perfect order for an autistic child is often observed as the categorical ordering of objects by shape, color, or size. In adults, this is more subtle and understated. I have certain things that must be certain ways to feed in to my functioning routines. If they are not, then that part of my routine is interrupted. I repeatedly apologize to my wife when we run in to issues effected by this. Most of the time, all I can say is “it’s gotta be this way to work.” I don’t usually have an explainable answer past that, and that aches that I don’t.

I do repeatedly check door locks and light switches in our home. There are two lights I leave on at all times, and all the doors are left locked to the maximum capability. On top of this, you can observe me checking pockets for my phone, wallet, and keys when leaving to go somewhere. 99% of the time, I have these things. I check for them anyway, because I am fearful of that 1% when I don’t have those things.

Stimming, or self-stimulating behavior, is something that happens with autistic people. This is physical movement that helps to calm the individual. It would not be uncommon for some stimming to be classified as a tic. One of my stims that people rarely notice is the flexing of the tendon at the front of my neck on my right hand side. By classic definition, it would also be a tic.

ADHD

Next is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. In part, NIMH defines ADHD with the following information:

  • Overlook or miss details, make careless mistakes; Not following through on instructions and starting tasks but quickly lose focus and get easily sidetracked
  • Having problems sustaining attention; Being forgetful in daily activities.
  • Fidget and squirm in their seats
  • Blurt out an answer before a question has been completed, finish other people’s sentences, or speak without waiting for a turn in conversation
  • Have trouble waiting his or her turn

Overlooking details is a big, giant struggle in life because I am so detail oriented. It’s painful when I miss a detail. This internal conflict is so big that I will seem to remember everything, only to miss one thing. I usually remember more than the average person, but the one thing I forget is the one thing everybody else is looking for me to remember. Being a perfectionist, this is probably the biggest thing I hate about how I handle myself.

Problems with forgetfulness or with sustaining attention loop back around in to the autistic difficulty with executive function. I can tell you ALL DAY what needs to be done where, for how long, and with what resources. When you expect me to be doing these things though, it is a struggle to follow through. The bad part where “normal” society comes in to play, I never have what would be considered a good reason for missing things.

Talking over people is a real struggle for me, both from a technical and social aspect. First, I realize that there is chaos found in talking over people. Second is something that always got me in trouble as a kid, and still does now sometimes. I’ve gotten accused of not listening and considering what a person has to say when I start talking before they’ve finished their point. It is a social faux pas. I get that. But very rarely have I ever changed my mind based on the few additional words due to be said had I not interrupted.

Ok, I realize I’m going off the rails in that last paragraph. What it boils down to is that I get accused of never taking the other person in to consideration most every time, no matter how I handle myself. The ADHD tendencies do not help matters. But what does matter is there is a hypocrisy. It may not be intentional, but it is there.

Anxiety

Next is Generalized Anxiety Disorder. In part, NIMH defines GAD with the following information:

  • Restlessness or feeling wound-up or on edge
  • Difficulty concentrating or having their minds go blank
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Difficulty controlling the worry

I’ll be the first to say that anxiety is no joke. From what I know now, I very well had minor anxiety issues all the while growing up. It’s only been in the last month or two that I have really started to struggle with this. The thing about anxiety is that the symptoms can and will grow from societal issues of any type…ESPECIALLY if it already exists. Physically, anxiety is draining.

(My usual disclaimer: Most things I talk about in relation to Autism can be applied to other Autistic people out there. Please understand that anything past the generalizations describe only my experiences and may not describe the specific experiences of other Autistic people. As always, if you have any questions about what you’ve read, feel free to contact me.)