Saturday, July 14, 2007

The stimming life

This week I received an email from a teacher with some questions and observations about stimming. The writer expressed concern about some aspects of ABA training and parent reactions to her refusal to help stamp out young students' autistic behaviors. Cool! I like this person already. In response, then, some random thoughts on stims, their functions and value:

(Note: there are many possible ways of organizing this information. Some activities fit in more than one category and my categorization will likely not be the same as that of any other person.)

Comfort stims:

Some of the things that help me relax are repetitive finger movements, bird and animal sounds, rocking, pacing, scribbling or drawing and repetition of words and syllables. Some of these (especially the bird and animal sounds) have at times been taken for “attention seeking” behaviors. This is a truly bizarre idea, as 1) I usually seek to avoid the attention of others and 2) the types of attention these actions draw is usually far from desirable.

Are these voluntary actions? Yes, I can choose not to do any of these. The most likely result will be that I remove myself from the situation and retire to a place where I am more comfortable. Failing that, I may become irritable. Most people don’t like me when I’m irritable.

Attention focusing stims:

These are the things that help me organize my thoughts and concentrate on what’s being said. They include making a low, rumbling sound, rubbing the back of my head, drawing squares, birdlike head movements, stretching and rocking. I’m sure some people think I’m not listening while I’m tracing the pattern in the carpet, but in truth, I retain far more information when doing this than when busily trying to fake “proper” eye contact.

There need to be more studies on this sort of thing with autistic children. Educational leaders might be more inclined to respect autistic learning styles if they had more empirical evidence to back this up. I once heard a speaker earnestly explain the difference between “compliant” and “congruent” classroom behaviors. She described an autistic boy who drew tornadoes during math class as compliant (not disruptive) but not congruent (not on the same topic as the rest of the class). Weeks later, I looked at the drawing (squares) I made during her talk. I still remember every word of it.

Ritual stims:

This is the category I use to describe some of my echolalic utterances and preferences for sameness. My need for some types of security has decreased gradually, but for years I had a certain table I needed to sit at in each restaurant I visited regularly. I still can’t enjoy a movie unless I sit near the end of the back row, but I don’t drive across town to visit the single acceptable gas station anymore. Echolalia, immediate, delayed, scripted or otherwise, remains a relaxing and enjoyable activity. Some of the stored scripts have become treasured rituals, reliable anchors in a confusing and ever changing world.

Stimming one’s way to success:

Repetition is useful in conventionally accepted ways. Music, poetry and other arts depend upon it. Science benefits from careful replication. The ability to endure a level of sameness that would bore many NTs to tears has allowed many an autistic person to flourish in fields which require repetition.

Stimming as an expression of culture:

It is always an occasion of joy to see another autistic person behaving autistically. It’s like finding a long lost family member in a foreign country, the instant sense of recognition and fellowship. More than that, it’s a powerful affirmation of survival in a world determined to extinguish any hint of difference. I’ve had meaningful and wordless conversations in unexpected places which are among my happiest memories.

Take the NT Stim Challenge:

What some people see as purposeless behaviors are anything but that. Stims serve a number of purposes for autistics and NTs alike. You think NTs don’t do these things? Please watch this video by christschool if you haven’t seen it yet, for just a few examples. There are many other repetitive behaviors that could be added to this list, including gum chewing (and popping!), remote control channel flipping, whistling and the all but meaningless “hello” and “how are you” rituals. The activities themselves may be different, but the functions are similar. If you think it’s not the same thing, try identifying a couple of your own “repetitive behaviors” and then just stop doing them. Ask your closest friend or a family member to point out every time you tap your fingers, twirl your hair or say “you know” and see how quickly you become exhausted from the effort. Observe how your attention to other, more important tasks is affected.

If you think maybe “mild” aversives are okay, wear a rubber band around your wrist and snap it when you “act out”. If you do the behavior more than a pre-set number of times, also deprive yourself of something you enjoy, like a cup of coffee or tea in the morning. Notice whether or not you feel angry or frustrated. It’s still not the same? You are right about that. You can stop the experiment anytime you want to. Society recognizes your right to set your own goals.


  1. I'm not sure that I would describe comfort stims as fully voluntary; after all, a person may not even be aware that he or she is doing them.

    I was told last year that I have a tendency to rock when I am in certain stressful situations, like ordering a meal at a noisy restaurant. I had no idea I was doing that until it was pointed out to me.

    Yes, such things are voluntary to the extent that if you are aware of your propensity to do them, you can choose to monitor that aspect of your behavior more closely and try (with more or less success) to prevent yourself from doing them. Of course, that results in more discomfort and irritability, as you mentioned.

    I just wanted to make it clear to the teacher who wrote to you that her students are not necessarily making a voluntary choice to rock, etc., but may be completely unaware that they are doing it.

  2. Very good point, abfh. I'm sure I do plenty of things I am unaware of as well. And this was most definitely true when I was younger and unaware of autism.

  3. Bev, and abfh, thank you so much for the info and insights. I see my son do so many things that others --including thos that work with him at school-assume he can control voluntarily. Your categorizations may help me to recognize (or not?) when Nik is trying to calm himself vs. organizing himself and is more able to learn in that moment.
    I might just have to print out your post to share with school. Nik is not yet in an autism-specific program due to other disabilities. Frankly, I'm not sure I want him in one if they are going to "program" out his quirkiness and spirit.

  4. I tend to call such movements "semi-voluntary"

    — they can be initiated voluntarily but then they're kept going by some involuntary process

    — they can sometimes be suppressed, sometimes not

    — sometimes they arise without the person trying or noticing


    My favorite stim story:

    My dad told me to quit rocking.

    I asked why.

    He said it made him uncomfortable, that it reminded him of 'psychotic' people or something.

    I looked at my dad and said, "You know what? You're rocking too."

    He hadn't noticed.

    He has never said a single word against my rocking since then.

    1. Voluntary/ involuntary? I sometimes simply catch mysekf doing it. A good example is like when I'm in a supermarket going down the isles looking for something. I will often wiggle my fingers until they tap on my thigh. It's almost like a wrist movement until my pinky and thumb bat against my thigh.

      It's not like I consciously pondered, should I do that? Yes, I think I'll do that. No, it's more like I catch myself doing that. Then, when I do, because i have been so conditioned by this NT society, I sheepishly look around me to see if anyone was looking. hahahaha

      If the coast is clear, I continue with my tappity-tap-tap-tap-tappity-tap. xD

      I only wish I were surrounded in the comfort of others with their own stims. Then I woukdn't need to feel so self-conscious in such situations.

      Like wearing a cowboy hat to a middle-eastern bazar. xD

    2. Gosh! I forgot to hit the "notify me" button. =P

  5. Oh, another thing showing they're probably different than voluntary movement is, voluntary movement is so stressful for me physically to do, that it changes my galvanic skin response noticeably. (It does not change at all for 'normal' people. It changes in me if I even wiggle my toes.)

    My GSR does not jump up at all from rocking.

  6. That's a great story, ballastexistenz! Bet this is true for a lot of parents. Semi-voluntary is probably about right for most of my stims. It's a mixed bag.

  7. I get twitches in my face under stress. I think this is because I am controlling my stimming behavior under duress. If I get a good and purposeful stim going.....pacing, hand flapping, vocalizations, till I am tired out (in private.....I have my own office and I can lock the door and have some down time) I notice that the involuntary stuff gets better.


    1. Sarah, I have a long commute. For me that is the perfect alone-time for me to unwind and utter cool utterances.

      One from the other day was: ahke takkarakatiskis taskatiskis takkarakatiskis tikkirikitas

      And say that a million times xD

      That's just an example. hahahaha

      -just can't do that on the job. I'd prolly get fired on the spot! xD

  8. Hooray for that teacher!

    I love my son's stimming behaviors - I can tell when he is concentrating, by what he is doing!!! I can tell when he needs a hug, just from his comfort-seeking stims. Hadn't really thought of it in that light, how much his stims are a form of communication - I just think of it as knowing my son, and doing what's best for him.

    Right now I should be getting the kids ready for church - if we go, I will spend most of the time scritching the back of his neck. It keeps him calm and focused. Ok, so some parents would think that's weird - but it works, without requiring the sounds that he sometimes makes to remain calm. And he will learn his own methods of coping with sitting quietly, eventually...

  9. I'm sure I have stims, I just don't know what they are. I take off my glasses and rub my eyes a lot...

    When I see a "normal" person rocking, it just kills me. I wonder if they are aware how "unacceptable" that behavior is.

    When one of my students started hand flapping in front of me, I took it as a sign that they were comfortable with me!

  10. I'm so glad to have confirmed what I 'thought' I already knew. I'm still not that good at identifying which is which [I should probably figure out a matrix since there's two of them!]

    Also a great tip on how to help us parents get a clue, thought I don't think it's a society that I want to join. [see the big yellow stripe down my back -elastic bands are icky!]

  11. I like your squares!


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