As I sit here to type this article, my thoughts race and my muscles tense up. Every little detail of my experience competes for my attention, from the cars driving by, the whir of the fan, the high-pitched hum of the electrical outlets, and the sticky, tickly sensation of my skin in the stagnant air. But then I remember what my article is about; the importance of stimming for autistics like myself.
A bit apprehensively at first, I rock back and forth in my chair, letting the sounds blur together into a rhythmic ‘whoosh, woosh, whoosh.’ My muscles start to relax. I pick up the polished sea bean on my desk and roll it repeatedly in my hand, finding comfort in the inevitability of its surface sliding against my skin. I think of all the times in childhood when I wanted to move, but couldn’t, and when I realize that my writing and art could potentially help children self-regulate in ways that I could not, I break into a happy flap.
Now that distance learning and work-from-home arrangements are more common than ever, we need to talk about the repetitive, self-soothing behaviors known as stimming. Have you ever impatiently tapped your feet while waiting in line, whistled to yourself in the car or stroked a dog’s furry coat to soothe your nerves? Those are all stims, yet are socially acceptable enough for you to absentmindedly do in public. If you’ve ever seen someone wring their hands or pace in a hospital waiting room, you’d know that even neurotypical people tend to stim more when they’re anxious and unsettled.
Autistics and other neurodivergent people, on the other hand, are the canaries in the coal mine. We’re so easily overwhelmed by sensory input, thoughts, and emotions, that our stims are bigger, louder, more unsettling to the casual observer. Autistics might rock, flap, jump, or pace back and forth on our toes. We might fling our bodies against the furniture or even hit ourselves because it feels good. We need to stim, yet from a very early age, autistics are taught to have ‘quiet hands.’ Some autistic kids are self-conscious and devoted enough to stop doing those things that nobody seems to like, so they stop stimming and manage to pass as ‘high functioning’ or even neurotypical. I cannot begin to describe how damaging this is.
For autistics who have suppressed their stims through childhood, that shame runs deep. Imagine having an itch that you cannot scratch, out of fear that someone might see you and pass judgment.
Even as I work on a picture book that celebrates stimming and encourages children to be their happy flappy selves, I myself struggle with internalized shame and tension from trying to stay still and quiet in my own home. All the reassurance in the world can’t convince me that I shouldn’t seize up whenever somebody might walk in the room.
But I need to stim. When I rock and sway, I feel grounded and calm. When I flutter my fingers and flap my hands, I am no longer overwhelmed by my environment, but rather connected to it through the blur of movement before my tired eyes, through every air current felt flowing smoothly across my wrists like a cooling stream. My anxiety melts away and releases into the world around me.
It’s no wonder autistics are so prone to childhood trauma. When you’re constantly in a state of ‘fight or flight’ in an attempt to fight your body’s every natural movement, merely existing is traumatic. It’s no wonder PTSD is so common among us. Stimming is natural, healthy, and even crucial for the mental wellbeing of autistics, and it’s beneficial for everyone else too, for that matter.
So, to the parents and teachers reading this, I’m asking you to let kids be themselves, without exception.
Let them move, and let them stim.
Steve Asbell is an autistic author and illustrator whose work includes the "Stimmy Kitty" webcomic, as well as an upcoming picture book on stimming, FLAP YOUR HANDS, to be published by Lee and Low in Spring 2021. You can find him on Twitter @steve_asbell,