February 21, 2017
What will make this situation better? Oh, I know! Stimming!
Like many autistic folks, I have “anxiety issues”. Being stuck in a room with a bunch of people talking about nothing in particular puts me on edge. Being in new situations where I don’t know how things are going to turn out… that puts me on edge. Being involved in anything that doesn’t involve a plan, eats away at my composure like little else. Open-ended “free flow” activities are not fun for me, nor is standing in a long line waiting for my turn to be helped. If I don’t have a pattern or a definite, predictable outcome to look forward to, anxiety mounts in me and gradually erodes whatever joy I may have felt at the outset of those activities.
It seemed like a great idea to attend that party with friends, but an hour into it, my skin feels like it’s covered by creepy-crawlies, my breathing has become shallow, I’m getting a headache, and I startle anytime someone comes up to talk to me.
I also have sensory issues, which get worse when I’m stressed / anxious. So, when I’m in a meeting at work, and everybody’s just kind of “shootin’ the breeze” (how’s that for a colloquialism?), the lights are bright overhead, and the room is too hot or too cold or has a breeze blowing on me, things rapidly go downhill. What starts out as a good way to connect with others and find out what they’re doing, turns into a chore and a trial, and as often as not, I’m completely wiped out afterwards. But of course I have to continue on with my day.
No rest for the weary, it sometimes seems…
But I can’t just ditch every meeting at work. I have responsibilities. I’m a member of a team. I sometimes have to go stand in line for things I need — like groceries or a renewed driver’s license. I don’t get to pick and choose everything I do, and to be honest, I’m not sure I’d actually want to. As much as I detest some of these chores / trials, and as challenging as they can be at times, they are still necessary parts of my regular life, which enable me to live fully as a responsible member of society.
So, what to do?
Stimming! Yes, stimming!
“Stimming” is the practice of “sensory self-stimulation”, using one kind of sensory stimulation to focus your attention away from the plethora of other sensory stimuli that surround us on any given day.
For those of us on the autism spectrum, life can be a constant onslaught of sensory information that vies for our attention without ceasing. It’s like walking into a big-box electronics store where there are walls covered with brightly flashing television screens, blaring sound at top volume, and all the salespeople are wearing heavy cologne and perfume, and they all descend on you in a herd, asking “Do you want to buy something? What are you looking for? Can I help you? Which t.v. do you want? Do you want Dolby or no? Surround sound? How do you like this remote control? How do you like that picture – that picture – that picture? Would you like to pay with cash? Credit card? Layaway?”
It can be overwhelming — and this is the kind of experiences we have, even outside those big-box electronics stores. Grocery shopping… riding public transit… driving during rush hour on a bright, sunny day… going to a party… attending a graduation celebration or a wedding… Everything, from the overhead lights to the colors and shapes of all the objects moving around us, to the voices of people, pets, automobiles, just about any ambient sound, to the feel of fabric or a human touch against our skin… it’s all amplified. And when we’re stressed, it can become even more so.
Stimming makes it possible to focus your attention on Just One Thing, and concentrate on that, effectively blocking out the distractions and intrusions of your surroundings. And for many of us, they are life-savers. You wouldn’t think that something as simple as a piece of tissue or a repetitive motion or even a low hum would make all the difference. But sometimes, it does.
There are plenty of different types of “stims” — squeezing a rubber ball, clenching a wadded-up piece of paper, chewing something, humming, playing with jewelry, spinning, rocking, pacing, head-banging, rubbing your hands or fingers rhythmically on a rough or smooth surface, repeating words or noises, snapping your fingers, spinning objects (like tops or – in my case – ballpoint pens), hand-flapping, popping bubble wrap, etc. Stims can be hidden from public view (I hold tight to a wadded-up tissue that no one can see, and that calms me in meetings), or they can be very visible, like running in circles and flapping in the middle of a park.
Our reasons for stimming can be out of happiness or frustration or, yes, anxiety. But it’s not always about keeping the panic levels down (though it does help). Sometimes it’s about focusing your attention on a very narrow set of sensory inputs, so you can more fully experience a Single Source of Joy that’s filling your heart like nothing else. Flapping my hands or happily kneading a piece of paper actually lets me feel elation more fully. I can block out all the ambient distractions and focus on my Bliss — the best way of all to celebrate, by blocking out the auditory and bright-light and tactile distractions, and focusing myself, my whole unbridled attention, on the experiences I choose to experience, at that moment in time.
As much as they help, I tend to conceal my stims. I use them a lot — particularly the wadded-up tissue that gives me something to hold onto tightly, while the rest of the world spins around me. I also rock when I’m taking a shower, shifting my weight from one foot to the other, behind the privacy of my shower curtain. Stims really balance me and help me get my center back, but not everyone feels comfortable watching it. I can seem “tranced out” at times when I’m deep in a stim cycle, which sometimes elicits laughter from others — nervous laughter, because they sense I’m “grooving” on something they cannot sense. Or my motions can seem herky-jerky, inexplicable, and not at all ladylike. That makes people uncomfortable, too. I don’t hold it against them. I just keep my stress-relief movements discrete.
Some of my stims are really easy to conceal, like the tissue I hold tightly in my hand. All anyone else sees is a clenched fist, while I can soothe myself with the pressure. If I have to rub my hands intensely, I put them under the table. Or I sit on my hands to put pressure on them. Some of my stims are part and parcel of my work. Typing, for example, is a great stim – as is writing, which incorporates a creative aspect along with the sensory focus of the physical action. Working on the keyboard…. The rhythmic tap-tap-tap of the keys… The regular pressure of my fingertips on the keys is as good as just about any other stim. And if all goes well, I have something to show for my work — a story, a document, or even just a handful of paragraphs or interconnected thoughts. There’s no lack of opportunities for me to stim, in the course of my days. And when I don’t get on my computer for a day or two, I feel the lack of that particular stimulation like nothing else. But as far as anybody else can tell, I’m just doing my job.
Figuring out how to be discrete, as well as finding stims I can do anytime, anywhere, no matter what, has really helped my composure and anxiety levels. I know that I can rely on them to relieve the pressure, if I get into a challenging position. If I’m “on the hot seat” at work, with people pressuring me in meetings, I can clench that little wadded tissue into a tiny ball. I can also sit on my hands, till the seams of my pants leave indentations in the backs of my hands. And I can rub my hands furiously under the table. It relieves the pressure, it helps me focus, and it keeps me able to participate as a full member of the team. And when I get home, I can dance around, flap, hum and sing, and echo a series of nonsensical sounds to my heart’s content. Before I go to bed, I can take a shower and rock under the hot water pounding down on me. That will help, too. So, I always know I have these pressure outlets — and more.
Some people consider “stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms” (see the DSM-V) to be signs that something is wrong — a symptom of a disorder. But for me, and for countless other autistic/Aspie folks, they’re invaluable pressure relief techniques that transform our world from a cacophony of competing sensations, to an experience of a select focus that lets us concentrate, relax, and live productive lives.
Have you stimmed today?