I bite my nails when I’m nervous, I twirl my hair when I’m anxious, I tap my foot when I’m thinking, and for no reason at all, I open and close the refrigerator to see what’s inside, as if magically something will appear, multiple times a day. By definition I am “stimming.” Stimming, short for, self-stimulatory behavior, refers to specific uncontrollable repetitive behaviors done by many children on the autism spectrum. These behaviors include, but are not limited to; hand-flapping, rocking, spinning, pacing, flicking fingers, and repetition of words or phrases from movies and t.v. shows just to name a few.
For us, stimming happens everyday. I had no idea at the beginning of our story what my son was doing, and why he was doing it. At first glance, I thought he had an unsettling tick- his eyes would roll to either side of his head, whenever I tried to talk to him. He stood extremely close to the t.v. in our bedroom and would throw a fit if I moved him back. He would line up objects; (which he still does to this day), cars, canned goods, cups, plates, miscellaneous toys, for no rhyme or reason he placed things strategically in a row. If an item fell out of place, pure panic would consume him. The most painful stimm for me to encounter was the grinding of the teeth. This was the sound of nails on a chalkboard to me, and in 30 years, I will still remember that awful sound. These “quirks” quickly raised concerns before our actual diagnosis. Could he hear? Was he visually impaired? Did he seriously hate my cooking that much that it caused him to pocket his food in his cheeks like a chipmunk? No, after our diagnosis I went to see several specialist and doctors we were referred to and one by one I checked off; Pediatrician, check. Audiologist, check. Speech pathologist, check. Applied Behavior therapist, check. Occupational therapist, check. They all taught me about the grand world of stimming.
Children on the spectrum (and some adults too), stimm because it will manage anxiety, anger, fear, and excitement. It pulls their focus away from an overwhelming experience such as; walking into a crowded room or restaurant, going into a grocery store or doctors office with that awful florescent lighting, or hearing loud noises, or too many noises going on at the same time. We’ve had our fair share of outings where we were unaware of the type of reaction we would encounter based on the environment we would be placing our son in. Clueless in knowing that another child’s birthday party would cause our son to drop to the floor and start to slap himself in the legs, or bite his own arm. Trust me. It does NOT help when bystanders glare and offer nothing but their opinion about disciplining MY son. It also offers zero comfort when asked repeatedly; “what’s wrong with him?” I get it, and I know what it looks like, but if my son’s special needs has taught me anything thus far, is to be kinder, and have more patience. You never know what someone is going through. Which leads me into the fear of my son being socially marginalized because of his stimming. (Yay for stress!)
We are working on things day by day. School has been such a blessing with assisting our son and making him more self aware of the world around him. Typically individuals on the spectrum will grow out of some of their stimming habits, while many carry over into adulthood. This does not mean all hope is lost. We’ve learned what triggers our son, and how to help prepare him for situations that may arise in certain scenarios. One huge thing that helps us is giving our son something to hold (semi-heavy), while walking to and from places. His focus goes into the object, eliminating any need or urge to jerk and pull, or shriek and moan. I’ve heard weighted vests are a huge plus and would love to try one eventually. While stimming may look troublesome, know that this is all apart of self-regulating or self-soothing. It provides a release for the individual. I always think of my son as “lightning in a bottle.” If the bottle is closed, there’s no where to go, he’s bouncing off the walls. He has to be let out, and has to have that time to decompress. Heck, we all need that!!
Stimming doesn’t always indicate autism, so please do not give yourself a self diagnosis. Understanding signs of autism spectrum disorder will help you determine if your child needs professional help, or just a refresher on their table etiquette. Remember you aren’t alone in this journey, I’m here for you!! Let’s chat soon ❤