I “accidentally” diagnosed myself as Asperger’s/ASD when I was helping my daughter answer some detailed checklists for her counselor. I guess I’m one of those females that slipped through undiagnosed. Looking back, I can see that what I did was observe “normal” people in social interactions, notice patterns, and develop algorithms to explain the appropriate behaviors and then store those algorithms as “rules” to follow in social situations. These rules have helped me pass for (almost!) normal most of my life and I have relied on them to help my daughters through social situations.
In any event, I’ve long been aware of my differences. I just didn’t know there were others like me. But one of the distinctive things about the ASD brain is that all ASD folks are wired differently. Yet there are similarities. There are patterns that can help parents of ASD kids as well as adult ASD folks like myself. My goal is to help explain what’s going on with the mental wiring and how you can make the most of the advantages…and circumvent problems.
One type of behavior that sets the ASD population apart is stimming, short for self-stimulatory behavior. The thing about it is most all people engage in stimming when they’re trying to think. If you’ve ever tapped your pencil, drummed your fingers, chewed your nails, or scratched your head in thought, you have engaged in stimming. So why is it that ASD folks get so carried away with the stimming that they are known to rock themselves, flap their arms, chew pencils into twisted skeletons, talk to themselves out loud, or pace incessantly?
The answer is basically that people stim NOT to think but to STOP thinking. Stimming is just a way to distract the conscious mind so that the subconscious can use the brain long enough to come up with a new idea. Most of the creative new ideas are products of the subconscious, which operates outside of time to access ALL of our memories at once, cross-reference them with the problem at hand and come up with new possibilities at the speed of thought. In order to let the subconscious do all that we’ve got to stop thinking of the problem consciously. And, as I mentioned in my last article ( link!) ASD people think a lot more than normal. So, it often takes more stimming to stop the ASD conscious mind long enough to access the subconscious.
Another part of the answer is that ASD kids often have people who attempt to stop their stimming before it has had the desired effect. So then it becomes a circular exercise. The stimming increases and may take more dramatic forms (like slapping one’s own head) as the ASD person gets frustrated or overwhelmed with emotions, whilst still attempting to clear the conscious mind and get back to the original problem and its solution.
How to Control Stimming
Given that, what’s the best way to stop a person from wild uncontrolled stimming? DON’T try to stop them at all. Instead of getting all bent out of shape because someone is tapping or rocking or talking to themselves, try building some acceptable forms of stimming into their day. There are companies who have wonderful collections of objects for stimming, from textured putty to chew-able jewlery, to phone cases with built in bubble wrap. And you can also rely on everyday objects, like bubble wrap, silly putty, moon sand, gum, etc.
In fact, you can teach any child to engage in stimming in order to access creative ideas, integrate newly learned information, or process emotions. Teachers and parents would do well to follow any 20 minute lesson with 10 minutes of stim play, such as sand and water tables. Or kids can hold a bit of clay or putty to fiddle with DURING lessons. Even better, hands on activities can be used at regular intervals to allow students to make those neuron connections.
What you want to avoid at all costs, however, is pressuring an ASD person while they are stimming. Remember, all people use stimming to problem solve. So if you fuss at, restrict, shame, talk to or otherwise interfere with an ASD person’s stimming you are actually heaping on more and more problems to be solved. Now, in addition to a thinky problem they have a complex emotional problem or two. This will only make them need to stim faster, harder, or longer. Instead, just hand them something to mess with and leave them alone for awhile.
You might also want to consider that YOU may be the problem that needs solving. If you are insisting that the ASD person do (or STOP doing) something that defies reason and logic you are presenting them with an untenable problem. Such a problem will require a lot of stimming to solve. There are many such unreasonable requests built into what we call “societal norms”. For example we may insist that a person wear uncomfortable and restrictive clothing, put water on their face, eat foods that are strangely flavored or weirdly textured, stand up in an erect fashion, sit still for long periods of time, rub a prickly brush coated with a chalky tingly paste around in their mouths, pull another brush painfully through their hair, ALL before leaving the house for school or work.
They may be expected to RESIST normal human activities such as digging in their nose, mumbling to themselves, wiggling, releasing bodily gasses, scratching itches, or any array of primate grooming activities native to our very species. If your senses are much more finely tuned than the “norm” all of these things may cause you problems. Introduce sights and sounds that may pass below the perception of most “normal” folks (see: linky!) and your Autistic person has a weeks worth of problem solving built into the first couple hours of the day. Is there any wonder that the stimming gets more and more exaggerated?
So, part of the solution may be to simply CHOOSE to let things that really don’t matter, NOT matter. Or to become aware of sensory distractions that may be “white noise” or “part of the scenery” to the less sensitive person. Or to ask. Or to let the ASD person know their requests will be honored. Does it really matter that a child eats their lima beans if it makes them gag? Aren’t there other veggies they could consume? If they want to wear their favorite shirt everyday, why not buy 5 or 6 identical tops? Albert Einstein did that as a professional adult.
There are many ways to handle and manage stimming. The first step, really is to understand that stimming is NOT a problem. Its a problem solver. The problem may be that social norms have evolved to support a non-thinking, insensitive, unaware average population. And its become fashionable to force sensitive, quick-thinking aware people to dumb it down in order to fit expectations. But what if individual happiness was more important than fashion? What if diversity was more valued than fitting in? What if we could usher in that utopian future simply by pausing every 15-20 minutes to let people think?
Even if you or your kids don’t seem to be on the ASD spectrum, you can still benefit from creating the pattern of taking stim breaks for thinking and integrating new information. Its that “study break” that everyone recommends but instead of wandering off in search of a snack or spending an hour watching TV, you simply set a timer and play with clay or bubble wrap or manipulable toys. You let your thoughts slip away. Let yourself become absorbed. Then ten minutes later your brain comes back on-line refreshed and you’ll find you have some new ideas and inspiration!
I use stimming in my office all the time. I find that I can take a client’s detailed history, making notes. Then I can step back and look at those notes while drumming my fingers, humming, and fiddling with papers. And, (once I’ve reassured my client I haven’t gone mad) boom! there’s the perfect plan for their treatment popping into my head. You see, every problem CONTAINS its own solution, but sometimes the connections are buried in your subconscious memory. Something that you haven’t thought of in years, something that your mind learned while you weren’t really paying full attention, a chain of events with a missing link, then suddenly something clicks into place and fills the gap.
Think of stimming as the process that gets things into and out of the deep freeze of the mind in useful formats. Then find a few favorite stim toys to keep at hand, and watch what your amazing mind can do unleashed. You need never have “writers block” again! In fact, you can use your subconscious to create new solutions, problems solve, simulate test runs, make connections to old information, notice patterns, weed out outliers and data that is inconsistent with tested facts and systems.
Stimming Idea Links: