In May last year, I wrote a post about stimming. I commented on some of Geordie’s past stimming, observing that his movements had changed and become less obvious (and less ‘weird’ in the eyes of society) as he was getting older. At the time of writing that post, I wondered if he’d stopped stimming — although I was under no illusions he’d ‘grown out of it’.
He hasn’t stopped, by the way. You just need to know what to look for.
Stimming – or stims – are a wide variety of self-stimulating behaviours that people with ASD may exhibit when experiencing sensory overload or high levels of anxiety. Stimming can be a repetitive motion such as hand flapping or rocking, repetition of words or phrases, vocalizations, or even the repetitive movement of objects. Stimming still puzzles many neurotypicals, who often want to eradicate or control stims. While stimming may seem alarming or strange to the rest of us, these behaviours do serve a purpose for those on the spectrum.
If you google stimming or stims you will discover a multitude of definitions, articles and blogs on this subject. Mother of two children on the autism spectrum, Maureen Bennie, provided one of the more clear and accurate ones I could find in a quick 5-minute search. I particularly like her last two sentences.
Geordie’s stimming appears to be most prevalent when he is anxious about something, but it also appears occasionally when he’s bored. Along with the changes in his stimming behaviour, there has also been an increased awareness of what he is doing.
I thought it may be interesting to make a little timeline of the changes in his stimming, if only for my own reflections:
♦ 2 years old (approx) – 4ish:
Geordie was obsessed with HotWheels Cars. He would spend endless amounts of time lining them all up, then moving them all forward one space, and back one space. (I am not 100% sure if this is stimming or not, but when he was doing it, he wasn’t aware of anything that was going on around him at all which was characteristic of later stimming movements.)
♦ 3 years old – 4 years old:
Hand flapping, quick jerky movements which sometimes extended to his whole arm and occasionally, but increasingly ended in a jump. These would sometimes be repeated several times.
♦ 5 years old – 10 years old
The hand flapping and jump evolved into pacing forwards and backwards with hand/arm flapping and punctuated by the occasional jump. This movement would go on for anywhere from about 30 seconds up to 10 minutes or more.
♦ 9 years old – 11 years old
Although the pacing/hand flapping movement was still a major stim, it started being replaced by ball-bouncing. Geordie would go into the backyard and pace up and down the grass, bouncing a tennis ball. Again, he would do this for varying lengths of time and ahead of various activities (but always, every day without fail, before he went to school).
♦ 7 years old – right now
Geordie has been known to pull at his fingernails (and also his toenails) until they bleed. He picks at them with his fingers, but never chews them. I suspect he does this a lot while at school, but he also does it while he’s watching TV. The sound is very rhythmic.
♦ 11 years old – 12 years old
One day, Geordie came home from school with a Yo-yo. It became his stimming activity for about 8 months. The yo-yo lived on the kitchen bench, and Geordie would intermittently appear in the kitchen and start using it — again, always before school.
♦ 9(ish) years old – sometimes still now
Pacing and talking to himself is particularly prevalent when Geordie is angry, frustrated, stressed or very anxious. I am not sure if he is aware of this, though suspect he is at some level because if we ask him what he said he can get very annoyed and always denies doing it.
♦ right now
Geordie taught himself how to juggle during the Christmas holidays. First two balls with one hand, then three balls with two hands. He’s very good. He ‘practises’ quite a bit because it’s his current stim.
The most obvious and prolonged stim was the arm flapping and jumping one.
This movement, above any of his other stimming behaviours, was the one that happened anywhere — at home, at relatives’ houses, at the shopping centre, at restaurants and at school.
It was the movement that was frequently commented on and referred to by one of his Year 1 teachers as ‘flapping around’ and ‘deliberately disruptive behaviour’.
It was the action I was initially embarrassed about and tried to get him to stop — and because of this (or rather, my inability to get him to stop), it also signifies the time I first learned what stimming was.
He was doing this a lot when we were referred to his psychologist for his eating anxiety. She taught us that this movement was like having an itchy spot and, like an itch, if it wasn’t dealt with it could be agonising. She worked with Geordie on this too and got him to recognise it and name it. She taught him to tell us, “I need to jump,” so we could take him somewhere private, where he wouldn’t be stared at.
This was the turning point.
Recognise stimming for what it is.
Deal with it.
The thing is — everybody stims, autism or not. Think about your repetitive pen-clicking, toe-tapping, neck cracking, finger drumming. They are all stims. They’re just less noticeable and more socially acceptable.
One wish I have is that stimming would be talked about more openly, rather than hiding it. It is not something to be ashamed of.
I would love to know of other people’s experiences if you want to share.