When my son, Noah, was very young, I marveled at his imaginative flamboyancy and ability to entertain himself. As he grew older, these mannerisms evolved from endearing to downright disturbing. The more I saw him interact with his peers, the more evident it became that he was not interacting at all, rather, he was isolating himself while engaging in odd ritualistic behaviors. He looked like a fairy prancing around on drugs, right there in front of everybody.
Before I get persecuted for that visual description, I must divulge that Noah approves. He not only finds it amusing, but accurate. It is intended to evoke an alarming visual, I was indeed quite alarmed to see my son doing this wherever he went. I later learned this behavior is called stimming. Stimming is what ultimately led to me to his diagnosis of Aperger’s Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum Disorder, and for this, I am thankful.
What does stimming look like?
Stimming can be manifested in many different ways. For Noah, a really good stim session involves prancing on his tippy-toes, back and forth across an open space while his hands are flapping wildly. He tops it off with an array of sound effects that sound like he’s come straight out of a Star Wars movie. If it is feasible, he will do this until he is sweaty and exhausted. This is pretty extreme stimming.
I was surprised to learn that almost everyone does some sort of stimming. Things like tapping your foot, pacing, and twiddling your thumbs can be considered stims. Stims are far more pervasive for someone on the spectrum, and they are countless.
Common stims amongst those on the spectrum, to name only a few, are toewalking, rocking, finger flicking, and hand flapping. They are any sort of repetitive, perhaps seemingly meaningless, sometimes ritualistic, movements or mannerisms. Stims can also include smelling, licking, making noise, and touching.
I pace relentlessly when I am thinking, bored, confused, or aggravated. This is not so different for someone on the spectrum. It is soothing. Stimming is sort of a slang term referring to self-stimulating behaviors. Many on the spectrum have sensory deprivations, and it is thought that stimming literally stimulates their senses, and it just plain feels good. It is also a coping mechanism when they are over-stimulated, which is also common. The technical term is called stereotypy; motor stereotypies are described in great clinical detail in this publication of Current Opinion in Neurology .
As I often do when trying to better understand a situation like this, I query my son. Specifically, I want to know why he stims. He told me he likes to stim when he is bored to entertain himself. If he is feeling overwhelmed, stimming helps him relax and cope. He frequently needs to stim after he’s had a lot of sensory stimulation, from playing video games, for example. He also needs to stim if he is forced to sit still for a long time, like at school.
It seems to me that he is compelled to stim, and it is enjoyable to him. Unlike tics or compulsions, it is a pleasurable activity. He does need to do it, but he also wants to do it, and he can be re-directed from it, sometimes more easily than others. Many times, especially early on, he did not even realize he was doing it, usually with smaller, less obtrusive stims.
Why Not Stim?
Noah rode the bus in third grade, prior to his diagnosis. This was when he adopted the stim of rubbing his nose to calm his nerves. Riding the bus was extremely stressful for him. There was a lot of commotion and kids did not like to follow the rules as he did. He is also highly sensitive to heat and noise. When his first grade sister led the entire school bus in a chorus of Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, it didn’t really add to the ambiance. He hasn’t been on the bus since.
There was a time that Noah liked to jam his hands into his armpits, and follow up with a great, big sniff. The picture in my head went right to the Catholic school girl skit on SNL. While that certainly was an interesting visual, it wasn’t how I wanted to envision my son. Noah still likes to sniff things, just not quite so overtly.
Noah is 15 now. Imagine what he would look like prancing around the grocery store like a fairy sniffing his armpits. This was a common occurrence when he was much younger. While it did look odd when he was 8, at 15, it would be extremely stigmatizing. If he does this in front of his peers, I don’t see anything good coming of it.
Reigning it in
Bringing his stims to his attention every time he did them was a good first step. I am clear to him that I don’t think he is abnormal for doing this, but someone who doesn’t understand him could see it that way, and why. Sometimes just giving him something else he likes to do is helpful. He also takes anti-anxiety medication. This helps him cope a little better, and re-direct his behavior accordingly.
As Noah has gotten older, he has discovered that he does want to fit in with his peers. This motivates him to modify his behavior into that which he sees as more socially acceptable. This is also why it is important that he is aware doing it.
His doctors and I concur there is no reason to eradicate his stimming, which may seem counter-intuitive. He still needs this coping mechanism, he just needs to do it in a place or a way that he won’t be judged, and I can still hear the TV. Noah tends to take a few liberties here. The people who know and love him, thus far have been accepting. I do try to make him aware of this fine line, because frankly, not everybody is accepting.
I still catch him occasionally in the wild with a rogue sniff, his heels off the ground, a hand flick here and there, and the corner of his mouth spurting out air where he thinks nobody will notice the ‘pew pew’ sounds in his head. While I am hyper vigilant honing in on this, I have found that most people really don’t notice.
If he is doing it because he is bored with a conversation, I re-direct him to join the rest of us. I’d much rather have him present than stuck in his own head, and one day, I hope he will too. Over the years, he has grown leaps and bounds becoming more aware of his own behavior, and consciously modifying it so he will fit in, not because I want him to, because he wants to.