Suicide Prevention: the Autistic Occupation Edition

Did you ever think you would see a .gif-filled article filled with practical suicide prevention advice?

When I first started writing this article, I started with the fun stuff: grim facts, shocking statistics, and a disappointing outlook. It seemed like a solid start to a compelling article, but I wasn’t feeling it. Everything I wrote seemed burdened by the disassociation that could only be cured by listicles and Golden Girls quizzes, so off to Facebook I went.

Four hours later…

Then, I realized, I wasn’t taking my own advice.

So what was the answer?

🎉 BE MORE AUTISTIC 🎉

I am an occupational therapist by trade, but a pop culture-obsessed autistic by neurology.

Instead of approaching this article with an academic austerity, I needed to write the article like an autistic who knows a thing or two about occupation and Giphy.

So: what is occupation?

“Man, through the use of his hands, as they are energized by mind and will, can influence the state of his own health.”

-MARY REILLY

Occupation is defined as “intentional or goal-directed activities that characterize daily human life as well as the characteristics and patterns of purposeful activity that occur over lifetimes.”

Most people think of occupation within the context of occupational therapy which focuses on building or fixing people.

But, occupation is so much more than that.

Occupation contains elements of doing, belonging, being, and becoming.

Do autistics have autistic occupations? Yes, yes we do. The way we engage in these occupations impacts the way we understand ourselves as autistics. It also helps us to develop our identity as autistics.

But don’t we all do these occupations?

Sure, but not with the intensity and necessity of an autistic. If you are the norm, we are three standard deviations from your norm. We are not a little bit autistic, and neither are you.

When you are able to engage in the things you love with the people you enjoy, it helps foster that sense of belonging so needed by autistics everywhere, especially those who feel disconnected and isolated. Which is most of us.

Let’s explore how we can use some #actuallyautistic occupations to help prevent suicide using a very Sarah (that’s my name) approach! We’ll focus on my two of my favorite autistic occupations, stimming and sensory regulation. 🤗🤗🤗

First up: stimming!

🗣 FREE THE STIM!🗣

Stimming is known as “self-stimulatory behaviors, usually involving repetitive movement or sound.” This means we bring our own party of toe wiggles, mouth buzzes, swerves, and twirls no matter where we go! 🎉

Autistic people feel sensory information differently and more intensely inside and outside of their bodies. We brilliantly know how to move and groove to get the information we need to safely interact with our environment and make important decisions.

Sometimes we stim to engage more actively in our environment, and sometimes we stim to hush the sensory information coming at us from inside or outside our bodies.

However they’re used, stims are pretty cool.

Stimming doesn’t just have to be big movements, either. Stimming can also be listening to the same song over and over again or watching the same fifteen seconds of a YouTube video.

It can be a visual stim like twisting a leaf in the sunlight. It can be echolaliating a favorite phrase over and over because it tastes delicious. I personally love to stim-sniff flowers and essential oils.

Stimming is neurologically necessary for our overall health. It helps manage our feeling of safety and stay engaged in the things we need and want to do. And honestly, we need all the immediate help we can get in some sensory-unfriendly spaces, like stores or in the classroom.

If you are autistic or a #neurolurker, focus on the stims that bring you joy and making you feel safe, grounded, and present.

Because stimming is a way of connecting with ourselves, it can be considered a form of spirituality as well as an autistic occupation. Connectedness with self and others is an important component of suicide prevention – so free the stim!

Now that we’ve stimmed on stimming, let’s talk the importance of sensory regulation and suicide prevention.

🗣 Learn to love and hate your sensory preferences! 🗣

The Rock clearly is a sniff-regulator. I wonder if it’s the sweet stench of fear that regulates his heart. Or maybe it’s popcorn. Whatever it is, The Rock clearly is using smell to help focus him before his well-choreographed battle royale.

What are sensory preferences?

Sensory systems include the typical sight-sound-hearing-touch-taste systems we know and love, but also vestibular, proprioception, and interoception. Many people even believe emotions are a sensory sytsem. (I do!)

Simply put, our sensory preferences are things and experiences we really like or really don’t like.

When people talk about sensory regulation and sensory “diets” for autistics, the approach usually focuses on managing the things we don’t like and are intended to “center” us to middle. However, these expectations are centered on neurotypical expectations.

This is the wrong approach. We should actually be increasing autistic joy.

What is your autistic joy sensory hack?

For me, it’s peppermint.

I carry little peppermint essential oil bottles everywhere.

Need to wake up? Peppermint.

Need to smile? Peppermint.

Have a headache? Peppermint.

Need to calm down? Peppermint.

Feeling bored? Peppermint.

Before an exam, my classmates would line up next to my desk for their peppermint oil blessing. We would all inhale deeply and take a centering breath.

It was my favorite ritual. 💖💖💖💖💖

Another favorite personal stim is listening to the same song, on repeat, in dysregulating situations. (Currently, it is Hozier.)

Listening to my samesong on repeat, with its predictable beat and lyrics and mood, makes my heart feel happy even in the middle of a restaurant. The headphones help dampen the chatter of nearby tables. I am able to do the thing I actually want to do: be with my family, wherever they are.

Sweet, heart-stimmy bliss.

I am doing The Hard Thing (dinner at a restaurant), but still centered on love because I am using an intense sensory preference (samesong) as a “joy hack” to dampen the din of dinner.

It’s time to let our autistic selves love what we love and find a way to incorporate it into everything we do.

Some of those sensory preferences may seem “weird” or socially taboo (headphones and music when you’re out to dinner – gasp), but oh well.

Autistics are meant to challenge norms, anyways. 🤷

PS – the stuff you really hate, you really hate. It’s okay.

I mean, you fully, honestly, and rationally hate those things. It’s a preference wired deeply in your brain.

If you hate pears, you’re not going to like pears with any amount of just-one-bites you have to take.

If you hate tags on t-shirts, you’re not going to like tags on your t-shirt.

If the smell of preteen cologne showers gives you a headache, that’s a real headache you didn’t deserve.

These are genuinely noxious stimuli that trigger a trauma response in our sensory-intensified brains.

They can also cause real physiological symptoms, like headaches, nausea, anxiety, impulsivity, and grumpiness. At a foundational level, this means we deserve acknowledgement that there are sensory experiences we simply cannot tolerate and still be a) well and b) effective.

You have a right to experience sensory information in the way you experience it, not just someone else’s perception of how you experience it.

We need the ability communicate preferred and nonpreferred experiences as valid and be accommodated for them accordingly. This is a form of self-efficacy which is another protective factor in suicide prevention.

Healthy autistic occupations are essential for #actuallyautistic suicide prevention.

Look for ways to include playful stimming in your life daily.

Be protective and proactive with your sensory needs, because they are neurological and valid.

Consider:

What’s your favorite stim? Have you ever seen anyone else stimming? What stims would you like to do more of in public?

What are your sensory joy hacks? What is something you could bring with you every day to help you find autistic flow?

What are some sensory experiences that you dislike? How do you avoid or manage those sensory experiences?

Let me know! These types of tips and tricks may help someone feel seen and connected, which is essential when we talk about autistic suicide prevention. You are not alone.

The Autistic OT

9 Comments

  1. Yikes. I wanted to read your article because it seemed helpful to me, but the massive amount of .gifs and all of the movement prevented me from doing so. I ended up feeling overwhelmed.

    1. Author

      Thank you! I appreciate that feedback and will incorporate into future writings!

      1. My favorite stims include hand flapping, finger flicking and falling towards a wall then pushing back off (you get that lovely SWOOSH feeling like you’re on a swing). I would like flapping to be seen more in public. This one seems to be ok when you’re a child but now I’m an adult if I do it around family they tell me to stop so I have to sit on hands instead. In public people stare or they’re concerned something is wrong and ask if I’m ok, which is nice that they’re concerned but kinda ruins the moment for me. So it would be nice if it were normalized instead of being seen as a cause for alarm.

        Sensory joy hacks for me include wearing and smelling jasmine perfume (This is something subtle so I’m always able to do this consistently which makes it even more important to me), listening to my samesong on repeat (again I can almost always access this and can do other tasks while listening, big win) and one of my recent new obsessions is watching on repeat the Annie are you ok? vine. I didn’t even realize these last two ones were a form of stimming before reading this!

        Sensory experiences I dislike include touching raw chicken, dogs barking, being in direct sunlight and using damp or wet tea towels. I manage mostly through avoidance such as buying precut chicken, or using fresh, dry towels. Unfortunately most the time I still end up feeling artful because I have to constantly try to justify my avoidance. People don’t seem understand how I could possibly find these things painful, I’m a #nuerolurker so I’m too scared to tell someone that I think it’s because my brain is wired differently. Especially the damp tea towels, my parents thought I was doing it purposefully to make more laundry work for them and when I told them that it had nothing to do with them, it was about me, they got even more upset saying I’m being selfish. I’m not sure what’s being lost in translation? I do most the laundry and have offered to do all of it to make up for the extra tea towels but they still get angry every time I use a new towel instead of a wet one, so I don’t understand what the problem is?

      2. Hi, I had the same problem. I was absorbed in the article up until the SO MUCH MORE! GIF, then I got overwhelmed and had to lie down under a blanket and stroke my dog for a bit. Anyway, I was wondering if you may find changing your web browser settings helpful? Most web browsers have an option to let you view only the text on webpages, removing potentially distracting/overwhelming content (you can google instructions on how to do this (I don’t know if this bit is obvious/ patronizing? If it is sorry)) Hopefully it may help you in the future, as using this allowed me to finish the article.

        1. Agree about the gifs being really troubling. I’m a #neurolurker; pretty sure I’m autistic, but having an aversive reaction to the gifs made me feel it was a tick in the column against (“How could I be autistic if I can’t stand an unpredictably predictable image on repeat?”). So reassured that this isn’t a discounting factor!

          1. Aside from the gifs, I meant to say Thanks! for a great article. I really liked this alternative take on what can be such a heavy and dispiriting topic.

            Something I found really thought-provoking was your reference to peppermint oil. I have a bottle of clary sage (essential oil) that I always used, in the past, to regulate myself (usually during depressive episodes, following my recognition of it being a great balancer when I was pre-menstrual). It has never occurred to me though, until now, that it absolutely makes sense for me to use this as a preventative, rather than a curative, measure.

            Does it bring me autistic joy? Yes! Should I use it as a sensory hack? Absolutely!!

    2. Yep, some folks will be delighted by the GIF and some, like me, do better with no GIF. Guess it safe to say that not every post is going to be for every person Gif-wise, because having contradictory opposites both in place at the same time can’t happen. A bit of a tangent, but the thing brings to mind a surgeon I had a consult with years ago; turned out they picked up immediately that I was autistic because they had an autistic adult son. Their son and I were opposites in that I could drive okay but TV was too much for me & their son could watch TV okay but driving was too much for him.

      1. Author

        So true, we’re all different, but share an INTENSITY. I’ll keep all of this in mind for the next article!

  2. Oh my goodness I love this article so much. I love gifs and felt they added a real sense of levity to a heavy topic. Thank you for modeling ‘being more autistic’ as a strategy. I’m going to take my Stimson out into the world, particularly‘same song’. I get super triggered by playgrounds, but I’m a parent and I have to spend a fair bit of my time there. Adding music will be such a help (and something I would never have considered before because what-will-people-think? Thank you so much for a great read (ps I ❤️ Tina Fey)

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