I’ve written about my own stims before. Even when I wrote that post, I was a bit doubtful about the idea of a defined concept of ‘stimming’. And since then, I’ve become even more unsure.
Everyone defines stimming differently, and gives it a different purpose. I think the reason it has such a vague non-definition is that it’s a word coined by neurotypical people to describe whenever an autistic person did something they thought was ‘weird’. From the outside, it’s impossible to know what someone’s thinking or why they are doing something. So that means that a whole lot of different things end up being lumped together under the word ‘stimming’, making it not very useful.
Here are some of the reasons I do things which would be classed as ‘stimming’:
- I actively enjoy it – e.g. pressing something that makes a clicky sound.
- I don’t know why I do it, it just happens without me noticing – e.g. I rock automatically when I’m sitting down in certain positions, and it requires active concentration to not do it.
- A kind of in-between of the previous two: I feel uncomfortable if I’m not doing it – e.g. folding up my legs when I’m sitting in a chair.
- To release nervous energy – e.g. I pick my fingers and click my jaw much more frantically if I’m anxious or excited because I have twitchy energy that has to go somewhere.
- To block out or process bad sensations – e.g. when I’m somewhere loud I often tap my hand rhythmically to give me something to focus on.
- To express myself – e.g. when I’m excited, freaked out, confused, (or… pretty much anything now I think about it), I sometimes do a single very quick hand-flap.
- To handle bad emotions – e.g. when I’m very anxious or upset I sometimes punch my leg because it feels grounding.
And I’m pretty sure there are others too.
Looking back at that list, I think it can be divided into categories (nothing like a bit of categorisation to help me understand something!):
- For the sake of the sensation. This includes things which are enjoyable, things which are automatic, and things which make me feel more comfortable.
I’d say that this category is entirely the result of a weirdly wired autistic sensory system. Everyone has sensations they find enjoyable, some of mine are just a bit more unusual. Most people find themselves moving automatically every now and then, it just happens more often and in different ways for me. And a lot of people feel more comfortable in certain sensory situations, they just maybe have a wider range of what’s good for them.
- To deal with bad stuff. This includes processing my own emotions, bad sensations, or anything else which causes me stress.
I think this category is the intersection of an autistic sensory system and an autistic brain. The autistic brain part is what causes us to get more stressed or bothered by things which NTs can handle (like an unpleasant sensation or a negative emotion). The sensory system part is what allows us to be comforted or calmed by specific sensations or actions.
- Body language. A lot of my body language is similar to NT people’s, but a lot of it isn’t.
I would put this category firmly in the autistic brain section. Whatever it is that’s different in my brain, it give me different instinctive ways of expressing myself.
I’d be interested to know whether these categories resonate with other autistic people.
I’m not going to do an elaborate description of stimming in this post. I’m going to assume that anyone reading already has a rough idea. The short version is, ‘stimming’ is the name for certain repetitive and/or not-otherwise-functional actions. It’s common among autistic people as a way to handle sensory input and process emotions. This post is all about me and my own stims, I’m really just writing it as a way to organise my own thoughts.
I have three main categories of stim.
I’m not quite sure ‘grounding’ is the best word for this, but I couldn’t think of anything better. These are stims which help me control and understand where my body is. They don’t actively feel good to do, but I feel uncomfortable when I’m not doing them. There are a few different categories:
- Pressure. I always want to have my legs and/or lower body under some sort of pressure. Most often I have my legs crossed, curled up, or folded under me. I am uncomfortable in bed without a duvet over me, or at least over my lower half (which is horrible in summer because I’m also extremely sensitive to being too hot). When I’m sitting at/under a table, I normally try to press my hips or legs against the underside of the table by pushing my chair in as close as possible.
- Movement. I rock back-forth or side-side a lot of the time when I’m sitting down. I frequently rearrange the position of my legs, or bounce one leg on the floor. I pick my fingers almost constantly, and fiddle with my hands in other ways a lot, too. I click and chatter my teeth together all the time (I get pretty bad TMJD symptoms as a result).
- Touching. I spend a lot of time touching things around me. Any small objects get picked up and fiddled with – anything disposable will probably be destroyed (I leave a trail of ripped-up shreds of paper everywhere I go). I tap on surfaces a lot, and generally grab and touch my surroundings all the time.
These are stims which are simply pleasant. Unlike the above stims, I don’t feel uncomfortable if I’m not doing them. It’s just that I can get sucked into doing them for a long time and don’t want to stop.
- Sounds. Probably the most common. Certain sounds make me feel incredibly calm and relaxed. Mostly they’re things like, tapping, scratching, crinkling, rustling. One of my favourites is the sound of someone shuffling through a box of jigsaw puzzle pieces. When I’m doing a jigsaw along with someone else and they are shuffling through the pieces, I end up distracted to the point of not being able to concentrate, because it makes me so sleepy and relaxed. I also like making these sounds myself. But because of the relaxing nature, I prefer when I’m not the one making them – so that I can flop and enjoy the sound without physical effort.
- Tactile/movement. I’m not quite sure how to describe these but they are definitely a category of their own. Certain specific movements of objects are really enjoyable. A simple example would be clicking a pen (although that’s not really one of my favourites). But also other things which have a clicky mechanism, like doing and undoing a clip or latch of some kind, or pushing something in and out of a clicking holder.
These are stims which help me handle and process anxiety. When I’m anxious, my usual ‘grounding’ stims aren’t enough. So I do different, more intense things in order to process.
- Impact. Hitting things. Generally myself, but it’s not self-harm in the sense of wanting to hurt myself. It’s more that: I need to punch something, and a pillow doesn’t provide enough resistance to be satisfying, and so my leg is the best target.
- Movement. I usually need to be pacing when I’m anxious, because if I’m sitting still I lose track of my body. I’m also likely to start waving or flapping my arms. It’s like I become even more distanced from my body than I usually am, so the input has to be more intense to have the same effect.
- Tension. I find ways to make certain muscles or parts of my body tense. I often pull my hair – by grabbing a fistful and squeezing so that it makes even pressure over my scalp. I twist and wring my hands and fingers together, often squeezing and crushing as hard as I can. I will also grip and crush objects around me if they’re available.