A Tale of Two Stims

I want to share a couple of short stories about two very different stimming behaviours, from two very different guys.

Chewing. Relentless, constant chewing – especially the ends of pens. I would find pens that had been flattened into something resembling plastic pancakes and often find the chewer with ink on his face. Once I made the stupid mistake of picking up one of his pens and the drool was like something out of the movie Aliens, albeit a lot less corrosive.

Leg restlessness. Relentless, constant leg movement. Just one leg, the ball of his foot on the floor, the leg bouncing up and down all. the. time., to the extent that if his leg wasn’t moving I would be concerned and ask him if everything was ok.

Neither of these guys are my children; in fact they are both former colleagues that I sat next to at work for a long time. The first went back to school in Vancouver to do a PhD, the latter went to work in the finance department of a major corporation. Neither of these men were on the autism spectrum.

I share these stories with you because, in my opinion, we need to stop thinking of stimming as an autistic trait. I believe that we ALL stim. All of us use different strategies to relax, rev ourselves up or help us focus. I personally have a number of stims including:

  • Keeping my hands busy. When I’m not typing, I usually have my phone in hand, even if I’m not using it. One of the things I dislike most about summer is that it’s too hot to wear a jacket – when wearing a coat I always have my hands in my pockets – rolling my metropass between my fingers or rubbing the keys on my phone with my thumb (Blackberry provides more sensory input than iPhone, I hope they don’t go bust). For a long time I carried mini-koosh balls around with me. I would hold onto one of the strings and bounce the ball back and forth into the palm of my hand. When I’m with my children or Gingerheaddad, I’ll always be touching them, holding hands, stroking hair, rubbing backs.

My current self-regulatory device. Occasionally also used for phone calls.

  • For as long as I can remember, the most effective way for me to relax is to be stroked. I would lie in bed at night (and still do when I’m sleeping alone) and rhythmically stroke the inside of my arms from my wrist to my elbow. It never fails to make me smile when Owen comes up to me and pulls up his sleeves so I can stroke the exact same spot – like mother, like son I guess.

I recently met with the Principal of the boys’ home school, the Special Education consultant for that school and the boys’ supervising therapist. The boys and their caregiver were also there for some of the meeting. We were meeting to start planning their transition from IBI into school. (We’re just starting… I’ll probably blog about the actual process when we’ve got to the other side and I have some perspective.) One of the things that we did discuss was what kind of supports the boys need in order to focus. I remembered a friend telling me that their child’s new teacher had asked what she should do to stop her son from stimming (in this case, hand flapping). My friend asked the teacher NOT to try and stop it and why did she think it needed to be stopped?

So, I’ve been spending some time thinking over what I need to do if I get asked the same questions about my sons’ self-regulatory behaviours. I think what we all should try and do is educate our children’s teachers, family members, friends, therapists – that how to stop stimming is the wrong question entirely. What do I think are the right questions? Well, first and foremost:

  • Is the behaviour harmful to self or others? Stimming can include self-injurious behaviour. A great example of this is smoking cigarettes – yes, nicotine is addictive but the former smokers I have talked to don’t miss the nicotine, they miss the emotional sensations and associations that went with smoking – feeling relaxed, mindful, increasing their ability to focus. In the case of self-injurious stimming, we need to identify what the benefit is that our kids are getting from this behaviour and find other activities that provide them with a similar payoff.
  • Does the behaviour have an adverse effect on others? One of Oliver’s forms of stimming is his delayed echolalia. He scripts nearly all the time but especially when he is anxious or stressed. If we’re at home or in the community I don’t care – if other people have a problem with it then they are the ones that have a problem, not us. If Oliver ends up in an inclusive classroom setting though, I recognize that his classmates may not be able to concentrate if he is scripting loudly a lot of the time. So, I plan to talk to those other children (assuming I’m allowed to) about why Oliver scripts and to let them know that it’s ok for them to tell him if it is preventing them from getting their work done. I’m also thinking about other activities that Oliver can do to calm himself while he’s in class – we’re going to try a lot of different ones and see which ones he seems to like.

If you’re a parent of an autistic child and you’re planning a transition to school like me or you’re in the middle of IEP meetings in order to prepare for the next academic year, then one of the things to consider is whether your child’s teachers and classmates are properly informed and prepared when it comes to your kid’s need to stim. Make sure that they understand what stimming is and that all of us do it; for some of us it just looks a little different. There are some amazing resources out there, especially writings from people on the spectrum talking about the harm that arises when stimming is suppressed. If you need any recommendations, let me know.

With respect to the transition planning for Oliver and Owen…. wish me luck.

For Owen, water is very stimulating. Swimming is one of his favourite activities and even bathtime can be either extremely exciting or, as it was in this case, very relaxing.


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6 Comments on “A Tale of Two Stims”

  1. Gingerheaddad April 19, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

    Now that you mention it, there are a lot of things that people do that could fall into the category of stimming. Whenever someone asks me about Daniel stimming I have always said he doesn’t. But I realize that he does after you told me more about it.

    Will there be a follow-up post about regulating?

    • OMum22 April 19, 2012 at 8:49 pm #

      I think it’s very interesting the conversation we had about Daniel so I’m glad you brought it up. He doesn’t flap his hands or have obvious repetitive movements but I think the ones we discussed do fall into the category of stims: his ‘ready, set, go’ running, his repetitive letter play and now, his echolalic scripts. As far as a follow-up post goes… I can add it to the list! Thanks for the suggestion.

  2. CMarieGo April 20, 2012 at 1:46 am #

    Aaron is a huge chewer. Always has been. My biggest concern is choking or teeth damage because his favorite this to chew on is Legos. We have Chewies but he’ll invariably toss those aside and go for the Legos again. He also like to chew on paper.

    It may not seem like it but even this behavior has been an improvement. He used to chew on people in the form of biting.

    Thank you for the insight. StimmIng does serve a purpose for everyone.


    • OMum22 April 20, 2012 at 1:51 am #

      Owen used to be a huge chewer (and a big biter) so I know what you mean. I couldn’t give him metal cutlery because he would chew it rather than eat. I should take a picture of his bed to show you because it looks like a horse has been cribbing on it – he actually chewed out a chunk. He would use chewies thankfully but now his need for that level of input seems to have dropped. There are teeth-safe chewies that are VERY hard – especially designed for those who like to chew on tough surfaces – not sure if you’ve tried those?

  3. Autismum April 22, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

    Hiya, just discovered this blog via the Babble poll. Love it. You got a vote from me xx
    Have you ever noticed how, in a good way, stimming can be contagious. When my son starts drumming, I’m soon tapping along with him. I find it reaches him and he’ll come over and tap together – usually the first time I notice I’ve been doing it too.

    • OMum22 April 22, 2012 at 7:28 pm #

      Thank you for coming over here and for the vote! Greatly appreciated. I love that you and your son drum together, Owen and I must sometimes look like grooming monkeys as we stroke each other’s forearms and hair. 🙂

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