“Stimming,” clinically known as stereotypy or self-stimulation, is perhaps one of autism’s best-kept secrets. Defined as repeated actions, such as shaking, rocking or rubbing against certain objects, those “in the know” can recognize someone stimming a mile away. Outside professionals, parents and others involved in autistic lives frequently seek ways to limit these behaviors, occasionally citing self-injurious behavior, though usually referring to the violation of social norms as their pretext to stigmatize this generally harmless activity. This is no shock, given the usual goal of making autistic people “fit in.” After all, how normal is it to watch adults flap their hands, rock and hum or devour a bag of pepperoni straight from the bag while shaking with pleasure? If the goal of a neurotypical is to force compliance to convention, preventing stimming is a high priority.
The Autistic perspective is radically different. For an autistic, stimming seems to come in two varieties: stress coping and pure joy. The benefits of stress coping systems should be obvious. autistic people are often overloaded by their environment, and stimming allows them to put some space between them and their issues. What on earth is wrong with that?
The other reason to stim is the pure joy it grants. I’ve seen few people happier than an autistic with their favorite stim(s). I’ll admit I’ve been envious, seeing how happy a can full of olives and a “silky” polyester blanket rim could make them. We neurotypicals have to work hard to get that happy for even a few seconds, but Autistics come by that bliss naturally. Interestingly, it’s common to see groups of Autistics form a “stim circle” in a safe space and stim communally, once more proving that autistic people have their own social wavelength that neurotypicals don’t access.
I haven’t always had this positive perspective on stimming. When I was first introduced to stereotypy and self-stimulation, it was in theoretical and abstract terms. An autistic family member required “deep pressure” to provide sensory relief for his “mixed-up” body. The term “stim” wasn’t used, and the instructions on handling it came with the same clinical detachment as any medical procedure. It was a strange but necessary act to keep them calm.
My first positive introduction to stimming came through an autistic friend who always seemed unusually happy when in possession of a can of olives or a polyester-lined blanket. Their repetitive recital of certain words had the same salutary effect. Their happiness involved a little dance, hand flapping and contented humming. An idle question led to a totally new perspective on self-stimulation. This was no medical issue that required careful handling! This was something wonderful that only autistics experienced. Ignorant of the popular consensus that stimming was a “problem,” I did what any decent person would do in such a situation. Whenever I visited them, I made sure to bring along a stim. While I could not experience the joy this provided, the look of sheer delight on their face was enough. As we grew closer, I began actively encouraging stimming, reasoning that something that wonderful should be a frequent part of their lives.
I was surprised and dismayed to learn that my “stim-positive” reaction was unusual, that they had never heard of an NT telling an autistic to “stim more.” Uncomfortable, suppressive actions are the norm for neurotypicals who notice stimming. Still, I will never back down from my positive attitude. Everyone deserves happiness, and no one should be stigmatized for something as minor as arm-flapping, word repetition or an obsession with olives and pepperoni, especially when it offers such joy. Personal requests work quite well when needed: quiet stimming if trying to write a paper in the same room, relatively stationary stimming if people are moving around the room, etc. Autistics are reasonable like anyone else. They just want to be allowed to do their thing, and won’t hold it against you if you have a request that a certain action be held off or moved into another room until a better moment. There is no reason “stimming” should carry a social stigma. Whenever I’m visiting my friend, my advice will always be the same: Stim more!