This is the name given to the repetitive actions that self-regulate emotions and help to calm the person when there is too much sensory input from the environment (light, noise, smell, social demands etc). Stereotypical stims for people with Autism include hand flapping, banging head, spinning, bouncing, echolalia (I’ll do a whole blog post on this later) etc.
As someone who has suppressed myself from behaving “inappropriately” for most my life, I can say that I never dreamed that I had “Autistic stims”. I did, I always have done, but in true masking style they were very subtle and even I didn’t know I did them until I tried to not do them.
Being a physics teacher at the time of my diagnosis, I couldn’t just flap my hands or spin in the classroom. In fact, my whole life I’ve suppressed the urge to move because that’s not “appropriate behaviour”. My whole life I have been tense and on edge around people, even family. I would be sitting rigidly and waste copious amounts of energy focusing on my body and facial expressions. I have always been self-conscious with terrible self-esteem and I could never work out what to do with my hands or my face.
Pushing my hair behind my ear.
I never noticed how much I touch my face or brush my hair behind my ear until I had to not do it in the classroom. It was only after I had to think about and control my hands that it dawned on my just how many times a day my hands would automatically adjust my hair, or touch my chin, jaw bone or ear lobe. Once I noticed it I realised that I do it several times a minute when I am in social settings. I think it is part of not knowing what to do with my hands so rather than holding my hand awkwardly, I adjust my hair, or my sun glasses on my head, just for something to do with them.
I have always had a habit of flicking the second toe on my right foot. It’s always hidden but sometimes when there is a quiet lull in a conversation, the person I am near will start looking for the source of a tapping noise, and it turns out it was my toe flicking, causing the wooden floor to amplify the sound. During my first few months of teaching, I was so stressed that I pulled a muscle in my foot by flicking my toe too much.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I am a tea-o-holic. Strong English Breakfast, with lots of milk (lactose free these days). I almost never go anywhere without my travel mug, whether it’s work, church, appointments, tee-ball games. I always have a cup of tea. I assumed it was the caffeine I needed, but towards the end of the year of teaching, a decision was made that the teachers were no longer allowed to have travel mugs in the classrooms. This actually caused me to seriously panic. It was not for the nourishment or caffeine (I could still consume the same volume of tea if I planned ahead), but for the comfort of having something to pick up, hold, and sip for sake of sipping. For me, nursing a cup of tea, sipping it over an hour, is calming. When I am in a crowded place I am tense and sipping my tea helps to relieve the anxiety while I am trying to find the least crowded spot to stand. Sipping my tea in the classroom (travel mug with lid for safety) helped keep me grounded and calm. Having something to hold and sip reduces social anxiety.
Running my finger along an object.
On my keyring I have a mini TARDIS. While I would be teaching I would either be running my thumb along the edge of the whiteboard marker lid, or running it along the edges of my TARDIS keyring in my pocket. I did this constantly, consciously and sub-consciously, almost as though giving my brain something else to focus on helped me to not become overwhelmed with the noise and complex social interactions of a classroom.
Unfortunately, some stims are not benign. Over the years I have had stims that did cause pain. That’s a topic for another blog post. I do want to say that it is important for anyone who does have a harmful stim, that they replace it with a harmless one. This could happen quickly or take years of determination to achieve, but it is possible.
Everyone has habits, everyone has little things they do that help soothes them. For an Autistic person, those habits are essential to regulate their emotions and to prevent them becoming completely overwhelmed. For an Autistic person, removing stims, without replacing them causes extreme distress, which I discovered the hard way when I couldn’t flick my toe due to a pulled muscle, not being able to have my comfort tea, and trying to find something to do with my hands other than brushing my hair behind my ear (thank goodness I had my TARDIS). My awesome hubby bought me a fidget toy that I kept in my pocket and somehow, I managed to survive to the end of the year, smiling.