STIMMING OR, WHY I CAN’T ALWAYS KEEP UP MASKING… AND THAT’S OK.
AUSTISTIC PEOPLE STIM BECAUSE THEY FEEL THINGS SO DEEPLY…
I don’t always see eye-to-eye with my mother, the parent of an autistic young adult woman (hello), but one thing we will be prepared to firmly agree on and publicly declare is that vaccines did not cause my condition, and in all likelihood have not caused anyone to develop autism which was not already present. A purely anecdotal but kind of strangely wholesome reason for our agreed belief is that I have always stimmed, way before vaccines. Even as a baby, when everyone thought the flappy hands were just a cute expression of excitement. Even before I was born, while in utero, though at the time it was just presumed I moved around a lot.
We should probably clarify what “stimming” is. The term has been increasingly used particularly within autism communities as in informal alternative to “self-stimulatory behaviours”, which often include: rocking, hand flapping, tapping/slapping joints, pacing around a space, and/or repeating sounds/phrases (also called “echolalia”). It can essentially include any physical behaviour that an autistic person uses to help them cope with the intensity of emotions or physical stimuli and processing information. For example, I often use echolalia to take in information someone tells me verbally, by repeating the end of a sentence. This is because my brain is slower to register information I hear rather than see, and repetition helps speed up my cognitive process. Sometimes NT (neurotypical) people also have their own form of stimming by bouncing their leg, twirling their hair, biting their nails, etc. However, the difference here is that because these behaviours aren’t as noticeable compared to those displayed by autistic people, it is considered more culturally and socially acceptable.
“Surround yourself with people who value acceptance, are willing to listen, and find the most authentic version of you to be the most likeable.” – Sarah Kaye
Autism is often described as an “invisible” condition, because we can have any features of appearance and there are no physical marking or devices which would immediately give away that our brains are different. However, my stimming has often been the first sign when I meet people that I could be a bit “different” with regards to how I experience the world. I’ll often pace around a certain space, whether it’s a train platform, a bus stop, a supermarket aisle or my own kitchen. I like doing this. It makes me feel free. I’ll also often flap my hands, tap my joints, and be quite twitchy simply while sitting and talking to someone, in a way I can’t really demonstrate unless you catch me doing it in the moment. If I do this around you, it’s a positive thing because it means I feel relaxed within the conversation.
The main issues from stimming arose as I got older, because people stopped seeing the small kid expressing herself as “cute”, and progressively started seeing a taller, bigger person with increasingly adult features expressing the exact same behaviours as “distracting”, “unnerving”, and “freakish”. My family started asking me to “tone it down” in restaurants. It’s accurate to assume it made me a target of bullying within school. I unfortunately dated a guy who would hiss in my ear that I was being embarrassing whenever a passerby clocked me mid-stim and gave a sad smile which indicated they thought I must be “special”, i.e. not self-aware.
Sometimes I can use “social masking” (a feature already brilliantly explained by Lyndsey in prior articles) as an attempt to hide my stims. It means I have to be constantly on guard, aware of every single movement I make, always focused. This is the mode I am more likely to be in while I’m concentrating intensely on a task or on shift at a work placement… or on stage. When I’m being an actor. Playing a role. Now I love being an actor, reading scripts, and building the list of crazy characters I have taken on for the sake of entertaining and emotionally moving others. What I don’t love is being forced to be an actor of sorts even when I’m supposed to be representing myself. You can probably imagine that it leaves very little space for establishing my own identity and the older I get, the less time and energy I have to push that sense of self aside.
So I stim happily in public and choose to laugh at incidents like the old lady who accused me of being high on drugs at midday in a Costa cafe. Sometimes strangers do come up to me, ask if I’m alright, whether they should be concerned. I’m always happy to be open with them and explain what I’m doing and why it’s nothing to worry about. We might still have some way to go but the responses are definitely getting more accepting as awareness of autism and other neurological differences increase.
My hope for autistic girls and women reading this who might be able to relate at all is to minimise any priorities for those who won’t let you be yourself. Surround yourself with people who value acceptance, are willing to listen, and find the most authentic version of you to be the most likeable. Please embrace the stims that make you happy.
“Sarah sometimes writes, mostly out of passion or anger. She likes lists, an embarrassing number of Netflix shows, and having purple hair. She also acts, but more for the sake of enjoyment rather than success.”
WRITING ABOUT BEING QUIETLY, INVISIBLY, DIFFERENT BUT SAME
Quiet misfits mulls over introversion, energy management, autism in females, highly sensitive people, managing loss, LGBT women, creativity, and being yourself.