ASD: Stimming

Today I’m not going to be doing Bi Queer Theory. We all have intersectional identities, and it’s easy to forget that when you’re talking to someone who is very active in the Identity Politics of one facet of themselves, that they have others.

So today I’m going to get a bit personal. Today’s topic, rather than stereotypes, is stereotypy.

I’m somewhere towards one end of the autism spectrum, what the DSM-IV calls Asperger’s Syndrome and what the DSM-V calls Autism Spectrum Disorder. I would argue that it’s only a “disorder” because the neurotypical dominant culture refuses to accept people like us on our own terms, that it’s just another way to be human and a way that in fact holds considerable survival value on a species level, sort of like some of the evopsych people speculate about Teh Queer. (This reflects Feminist Psychotherapy theory, by the way, the secondary influence on my future practice, a theory that depathologizes people by asking if the things we perceive as problems may be valid coping mechanisms for living in a society that sends you bad messages – much like R.D. Laing’s work in Existential Psychotherapy. I smile and think “Feminist Therapy” every time I see the popular meme, “Before you diagnose yourself with anxiety or depression, check to make sure you’re not just surrounded by assholes.”)

There’s an old George Carlin joke that goes My friends said their kid was autistic. I thought they said artistic, so I said, “That’s great! I’d love to see the things he’s doing!”

Those things we’re doing? It’s called “stimming”, short for sensory self-stimulation, and the individual things we do are sometimes called “stims”. (However, multiple stims are not a stimpack because while they are helpful, they don’t restore half of your HP.) Stimming is a ritual, repetitive action that you perform that calms you, that soothes you, that imposes a little self-created order on a world spinning into chaos.

Everybody stims.

Let me say that again, because it’s something that I just ran across in an article and sat bolt-upright in my chair and shouted “AHA!”

Everybody stims.

Everyone has something they do when they are anxious/tense/nervous/overwhelmed. Neurotypical people tap their toes, scratch a phantom itch, gnaw on fingernails, hum monotonous tuneless tunes… and it’s not considered a major issue. Not a big deal. Not pathological.

I stim. I stim almost all the time.

I have a series of twitches that start with clicking my rings together, escalates to a dual hand-flap that can last many seconds, up to a full-arm movement that looks like a failed pop-and-lock. It’s not exactly out of my conscious control, but neither is it something I am doing on purpose. It’s my body throwing off tension.

I gnaw the insides of my lips, almost constantly at times. I have a small star-shaped scar on my lower right lip, just below the pink part, that I got when I was a kid. I had some dental work done and chewed all the way through the inside of my lip, through the outer skin from the inside. When I use mouthwash, it’s not just “intense”, it burns because of the alcohol and menthol hitting the exposed flesh just inside my mouth.

I drum with my fingers, a specific pattern that I have done exactly the same for years. I can’t do it if I think about it – if I do that, I end up with this.

I comb my hair with my fingers. I twirl my mustache. I pull on my Zappa (you know, that patch of hair that grows from my bottom lip). I pull on hairs – eyebrow, ear, beard. I pick and gnaw at my cuticles.

When I’m under stress, I am a hot mess of twitch and spasm.

If I am in a social situation that I find uncomfortable, sometimes I have to leave the room, go out in the hallway and flail and flap. It calms me down – it’s like a big bowl of ketchup. By the way, we may have slightly different definitions of what constitutes an uncomfortable social situation. Here’s mine: me in a group of 2 or more people where I don’t know the other(s) well and where I do not have a well-defined and structured role. So when I was a kid and went to my Dad’s company picnics, I would always find the booth where they handed out free cans of soda and spend the entire day — the entire day — handing out sodas to my Dad’s co-workers and their families. Because I knew exactly what was expected of me, exactly what I was supposed to do. Sometimes they would kick me out of the booth, and I would be miserable (and twitchy) the rest of the day.

My stims are no different in type from neurotypical stims. Except that they don’t call theirs “stims”. They call them “nervous habits”.

They are more in number than some – but there are NT people out there who are considered “twitchy” that stim more than I do.

Here’s another stim. I smoke. Like a freaking chimney. Yes, smoking is an addiction to nicotine. But it’s more than that. It is a whole compendium of rituals and movements. There’s a chemical addiction, but there are also stims involved. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard for me to quit.

No big “tie it all together” moment today. I’m just going to wander off, twitching and fidgeting.

See you next time.

About fliponymous

Bisexual activist, thinker, writer, husband, father, Licensed Professional Counselor.
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8 Responses to ASD: Stimming

  1. Very interesting post. : )

  2. judyt54 says:

    oh, im still chuckling, flipper. I can just see you twitching and fidgeting to your own drummer…i needed this, thank you.

  3. Jessica Burde says:

    This. For a while I was diagnosed as OCD and put on medication for my ‘stims’ – twitching my fingers in a specific pattern when I was nervous and counting my steps. Then I got to Psych 101 and the teacher asked ‘how many people do stuff like this?’ and every freaking person in the class raised their hand. I was medicated over this, WTF? Reality is that the more I learn about Aspergers, the more I understand some of the stuff going on my head. Needing a well-defined and structured role to be comfortable socially? Recognized that over a decade back, but wasn’t able to put it into words until a few years ago. Given the way my parents and their headshrinker reacted to my ‘stimming’ I dread to think how they would have flipped if they knew how many ‘Aspergic symptoms’ I’ve recognized in myself over the years. Reality: these ‘symptoms’ impact my life less then the PTSD I have from my parents treating every sign of personality as a medical disorder that needed to be medicated out of me.

    • fliponymous says:

      We have, as a society, pathologized *every* way of being human that doesn’t toe a rigid line of conformity, with one exception. We seem to idolize sociopaths, because we keep handing over control of the economy to them.

  4. Miss T says:

    My two sons have ASD and the more I learn about them, the more I think I am on the spectrum too. I have lots of stims and my boys pick at their skin and I have left it until now (they are 6 and 8) to see about getting medication to help them stop. We have tried diverting to another stim etc but it isn’t working. If they were not getting scars it wouldn’t be such an issue as I have bought chew toys etc for their other stims.

    I have not yet medicated my boys but it is getting to the point that their violent behaviour has increased, youngest is more ODD and oldest has more anxiety issues and both have stimming issues and don’t get me started about their lack of sleep.

    Anyways, great article!

  5. fliponymous says:

    Update: I quit smoking a couple months ago. I have not imploded yet, but I am really missing the stim/transition managing impact.

  6. judyt54 says:

    bravo to you for quitting. not easy, i did it 20 years ago next november, and never looked back. My lungs thank me, my new padded body does not. It’s a trade…

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