I’m in gym class, and I’m only eleven years old. I’m playing volleyball with my classmates, many of whom I don’t know the names of even though we’re halfway through the first semester.
I don’t have any friends in this class, but I think that doesn’t matter. After all, last year, in elementary school, we were all friends. That’s what our teachers said, at least.
The volleyball flies over the net toward one of my teammates. He parries it back over the net, angled toward the hard floor. Smack! We earn our first point. I’m so happy I could jump up-and-down. So I do. I jump and clap and smile triumphantly. I don’t notice that I’m the only one doing this. That I’m the only one stimming.
Stimming: (noun & verb). Stimming is short for self-stimulatory behavior. According to Autism West Midlands in their article “Autism and Stimming,” stimming helps autistics to “process information, cope with sensory issues, or to de-stress or relax.”
Personally, I think of stimming as a way to process my emotions, to regulate during sensory or social overload, and to express joy through repetitive actions.
What does stimming look like? Most people might imagine stimming as hand-flapping, rocking back-and-forth, head-shaking, or twirling. In truth, stimming takes on many forms. Autistics may have stims that are obvious or subtle, and we may use different stims to meet different needs.
Let’s go back to gym class, back to that same volleyball game: We score another point. And another. I jump. I clap. I whoop. I don’t see my teammates’ sneers.
“Why are you doing that?” one girl asks. She has the perfect ponytail. Her gym uniform hangs wrinkle-free from her frame. My own uniform is rumpled and a little stained.
“Doing what?” I ask.
So the girl jumps and claps and whoops, but when she does it, she rolls her eyes in the back of her head and snickers derisively.
Back then, when my teammate mocked my stimming, her imitation looked far-fetched to me. I barely recognized my movements in her mimicry. While she performed the superficial movements of stimming, she could not capture what I was doing beneath the surface.
So, why do autistics stim? What is happening to us beneath the surface?
Many of us are seeking sensory input, especially if we are feeling under-sensitized (“Autism and Stimming”). In order to receive sensory input, we tap into the seven senses.
According to the 7 Senses Foundation in their outline “What Are the 7 Senses?”, the senses include touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing, balance (vestibular), and body position (proprioception). Basically, when autistics stim, we are often incorporating input from these seven senses in order to regulate, process, and cope.
We might spin in circles (vestibular). Or, we may listen to the same song over-and-over again (hearing). We could pet a soft stuffed animal (touch). We can even combine several senses into one experience; for example, dancing around (proprioception and vestibular) to a single loud song (hearing) with a strobe light on (sight). In the end, this stimming helps us calm down and recenter, much in the same way that a hug might help comfort a sad allistic*.
Once more, let’s return to the volleyball game in sixth grade gym class: After the girl finishes imitating me, she thrusts her hands on her hips. “Why do you do that?” she asks with a smirk.
“I just do it to celebrate winning a point,” I say. I’m confused. Why shouldn’t we celebrate when we score a point?
A few more of my teammates laugh in my direction, but the game restarts, so the conversation ends.
I don’t jump up-and-down anymore. In fact, I’m anxious. When we score a point, I want to jump, but I hold in the joy. I bite my nails instead. I feel sick. Two boys high-five after a good volleyball set. How come they get to celebrate, and I don’t?
Whenever we score a point, I keep biting my nails. By the end of the period, I’ve bitten into the skin of my fingertips. I taste blood.
Preteen me was trying to navigate the complexity of social relationships. At the same time, I wanted to meet my sensory needs. When my peers ridiculed me for my visible stims, I tried to suppress the behavior.
But my sensory needs remained.
Actually, the needs intensified. After all, I was processing both joy and anxiety, as well as the sensory overwhelm of a sports game coupled with the social overload of peer-to-peer interactions.
Autistics neither can nor should transform themselves into allistics. When I attempted to act neurotypically* in gym class, I wound up creating a self-injurious stim: excessive nail biting.
No one made fun of me for nail biting, but my scabbed fingers sure hurt. Even so, with no other option, I actually continued biting my nails in this way for seven more years.
If an autistic is demonstrating repetitive action that is self-injurious, we must not blame stimming. In fact, stimming is often the only salve for self-injurious stimming. Of course, we don’t want to hurt ourselves in this way. However, instead of trying to halt the action, it is best for us (or for our caregivers) to redirect the self-harm to a different, related stim.
For example, if an autistic person is painfully hitting a hard surface, we could try striking a textured pillow or a clapping noisemaker. The pillow might meet a sensory need for touch, while the noisemaker may satisfy the sense of sound.
Unfortunately, no one recognized my stimming for what it was. As a child and adolescent, my autism went under the radar. Misdiagnosis and late diagnosis are common for those who are assigned female at birth (Arky, 2021).
Once I finally received my ASD diagnosis in early adulthood, I learned about stimming. My ability to cope with and process stress, overstimulation, and even joy rapidly increased.
I discovered stimming’s benefits to my mental wellbeing. Even more, I recognized the self-injurious stims I had put into place as a means of suppressing my healthier stims. I traded nail biting and cutting my gums with finger tapping and gum chewing.
Just recently, I purchased my first pack of sensory items. These stim toys are “products… such as chewable jewellery, fidget toys and sensory items” that are available online to buy (“Autism and Stimming”).
Stimming is a healthy autistic behavior. The main reason we are told to stop is because people don’t want to see it or are embarrassed by it.
In truth, stimming is wonderful, helpful, and even fun for most autistics. We simply ask that society see the sincere benefits of stimming. Or even give it a try. Stress relief is often only a clap, a flap, or a foot tap away.
*allistic: non-autistic person
*neurotypical: demonstrating typical neurological behavior
Arky, Beth. “Why Many Autistic Girls Are Overlooked.” Child Mind Institute, 2021, https://childmind.org/article/autistic-girls-overlooked-undiagnosed-autism/. Accessed 11 Feb. 2021.
“Autism and Stimming.” Autism West Midlands, Nov. 2019, https://www.autismwestmidlands.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Stimming_Nov_2019.pdf. Accessed 11 Feb. 2021.
“What Are the 7 Senses?” 7 Senses Foundation, 16 Nov. 2013, http://www.7senses.org.au/what-are-the-7-senses/. Accessed 11 Feb. 2021.
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One of my most comforting stims, which would come out when I am really anxious, is tongue clicking. It is both physical and auditory. It drove my soon-to-be ex-wife crazy. But just telling me to stop it did nothing to me. I can totally relate to your story from gym class. I don’t remember many of my stims from elementary school, but I remember one: pacing. Walking back and forth down the halls of my school, when I was “sent out” for being too disruptive. BTW, this did not affect my academic performance one bit.
It can be frustrating how the stimming, which is so comforting for us, can be viewed as obnoxious or disruptive to others!
Thank you for your powerful personal story! It makes such sense (the harm of the substitute for the stimming that bothered other people; the impact of other’s judgments, etc.). Your story will help people see stimming in a new light! Thank you!
Thank you for reading! I hope to see stimming fully embraced in the near future!
Thank you for this piece; I really enjoyed it – in spite of the confusion and the hurtful responses you describe, this feels like such a positive, hopeful piece of writing.
It made me reflect, in particular about how much humans (Brits? Neurotypicals? Not sure how to define this society I refer to) repress: their thoughts, their voices, their actions. This is a taught way of behaving, of being ‘socially acceptable’, of fitting the mould, that many – most, even – learn too well early on in life. It gets them through day-to-day living, but seeps through the cracks that begin to appear in later life. I’m talking mental health. Or mental *ill* health.
While very many autistics and other NDs suffer greatly with poor mental health commonly brought about through NT intolerance of difference, NTs themselves suffer too, self-infliction by their own allistic buy-in. Maybe increasing understanding, and acceptance, of stimming will be another gift from the autistic community to say: ‘Look at us! We are different! And difference is okay.’
Thanks for adding your insights! For sure, marginalization negatively impacts everyone, including those who seek to “benefit” from marginalizing others.
I definitely resonate with this. In addition to being on the autism spectrum, I have OCD, so I don’t necessarily know the difference between stimming and compulsions. Some things I find particularly helpful are thinking putty (similar to silly putty) and having stuffed animals near me (or, even better, a real animal like a dog).