Firstly, all humans Stim. Autistics are just really good at it and have turned it into an art. Stimming is a human behaviour, not an exclusively Autistic behaviour.
Humans stim when we are in REM stage of sleep, that’s a repetitive eye movement while we process input. We all do it! Autistics obviously do this too but we also do some pretty cool stuff while we’re awake to help us process input from our environment. As Autistics we also take in more input than people who are not Autistic. Stimming helps us filter the massive amounts of input and take in what we need. So pacing, staring, humming can be examples of stims we do to process.
Now, of course psychologists didn’t really list REM as a symptom of autism, they just didn’t realise that just like REM humans do all kind of stuff to process information. Which is kind of amusing in a way because here we are as Autistics unpicking what they meant by “Stimming” and explaining it to them as a very normal feature of being human.
Further to my amusement many mental health professionals actually use stimming as part of their therapy, the tapping method… stimming, EMDR… stimming, …. heck even talk therapy is stimming as we talk and find ways to process experiences. I’d imagine there are some who even use stimming to diagnose in one session and then use it as a therapy in the next without ever equating the two!
So why is “self regulatory behaviour” listed as a symptom of autism?
Who knows! I mean I can’t actually think of a logical reason to put a perfectly normal part of the human existence into a category of disordered things to do.
But you see, whatever an Autistic person does is wrong. We are told we think wrong, we communicate wrong, we play wrong and that we do weird things that serve no purpose only to make ourselves feel good or to regulate ourselves. It couldn’t be possible that we have taken human stimming to a whole new level of genius, of course not. I mean how could these poor Autistic people who move their arms about or stare “inappropriately” at objects have anything interesting to offer the rest of humanity?
Stimming is seen a bizarre thing strange Autistic people do which makes other people feel uncomfortable apparently. And I guess they’re right to feel uncomfortable, I’d feel pretty uneasy too if this amazing bunch of people had discovered something really cool that they could teach other humans to do and I didn’t know anything about it or worse, if I had pathologised it for decades. But that’s not the real reason people get uncomfortable of course, it’s more to do with seeing something that doesn’t fit into their narrow view of a perceived “normal”.
So what other stims do humans do?
Some Humans smile to share their internal emotional state, some Autistics flap their hands, jump up and down or squeal to share their excitement and happiness. So those are examples of stims to express emotion.
We’re also really good at filtering through information and taking out the important bits so we basically learn on the spot. I used to doodle on my books at school, I’d learn and retain everything because that doodling was a stim that allowed me to take in information, filter it and store it. Some people rock back and forwards to do this, other people do it differently.
Yes some stims are for soothing just like a baby sucks their thumb, that’s a repetitive action , a stim that soothes. As humans we also share our stims to soothe others. Have you ever rocked a baby in your arms or rubbed someone’s back to soothe them? Well that’s stimming!
We stim to recall information that’s stored by clicking our fingers, or using a verbal stim like “ummm”. Have you ever walked into the kitchen only to find you can’t remember what you came in for? You decide to walk back out and re-enter to jog your memory. That’s stimming!
And why does a repetitive movement stimulate a thought or memory ? How does that work? How does what we know about muscle memory fit in here? And what about teaching… we know kids learn an action song faster than they learn a page of text. Why is this and why is no one thinking and connecting all of these things?
As humans, we naturally learn through play, through doing, through movements. So why are we not teaching in the way that we actually learn? Makes no sense to me.
Extreme stims are things like injuring yourself or others, and of course that is something that any human who is living in constant stress and oppression will experience. If the outward expression looks like this, well then what is the internal state like and what can we fix in the social environment to reduce these negative feelings?
Stimming is a very human thing, it’s an external expression of internal processes or a human response to the environment. We explain stimming in our Stimming Webinar
If you’ve ever stopped to admire a view, or a colourful dress then that’s you visually stimming to take in an input that makes you feel good. It brings you pleasure so stimming can also be something we do to bring us joy.
Autistic kids and adults are not just doing mindless movements, we are far too complex for that. Unfortunately those that study us do not always understand that complexity or intelligence.