Understanding My Senses: repetition and ‘stimming’

As I write, I am fidgeting with a bracelet. A pair of headphones snakes from my phone to my ears which i cant resist the urge to strech and tie into knots even if that turns listening to music into a more expensive hobby than it already is. Occasionally, I’ll read something interesting that I can use for this blog post, to which I might react with excitable movements or else stare into space if I’m confused by what I’ve found out. I’m also known to rock back and forth when listening to music, or feeling anxious. Anyone watching me in these moments might think I’m acting strange.

What they might not understand is how all those behaviours, to me at least are a reaction to something. They are how I process change and the world around me. I’m not sure exactly why these behaviors help me do that. They just come naturally. Stimming helps me feel grounded when I’m overwhelmed but its also a way I can express my joy, fascination or sadness. The world is louder now, which I like, actually. Having somewhere to go, things to observe, hear and experience on a day to day basis makes me feel intellectually and physically stimulated, even if I do sometimes get overwhelmed. I feel that sometimes people put autisitc people in a box and say that because some of us don’t react well to loud noises or crowds we don’t ever want to be in environments where there is a possibility of loud noises or crowds. On the contrary, if you say you’re an extrovert and say you like to be out and about, your occasional quietness and withdrawn nature might be seen as strange or uncharacteristic. This is despite the fact that humans do not fit neatly into boxes, not least autisitc people.

A shift in the way we see repetitive behaviours as a society is entirely necessary. They contain not only ‘stims’ like rocking back and forth but routines, and special interests like a fixation on music and writing, as is the case with me. Traditionally neuro-scientists like Leo Kanner have viewed them as something to eliminate. However, ideas about repetitive behaviours and what purpose they serve has changed, as ideas about autistic people have progressed.

Interpreting Repetition…

Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger, who originated modern thought on autism even if thier ideas are incredibly outdated and wrong, both saw ‘stimming’ as attempts by autisitc people to shut out the world around them. In the wake of these ideas sprung up a whole subset of pseudo-therapy aimed at reconditioning autistic people. Tactics used included electric shocks and physical restraint, aimed at stopping autisitc people from behaving in ways that were perceived as disruptive and strange. This still goes on to an extent – human rights law prevents the use of physical torture but there are still ‘therapies’ which some children are made to undergo, aimed at eradicating certain character traits or stopping them from being sensitive to certain sounds, textures and atmospheres. If this sounds like social conditioning its because these practices literally emerged out of academic theories which believed that autisitc people should be cured, or else made to ‘fit in’.

Despite this, as anyone who’s ever had a child or younger sibling should know, erratic body movements and repetition are an important part of development as children learn to interact with the world around them. Now, as people learn to better respond to and understand thier environments, thier actions become more purpose based and goal oriented. While I’m cautious of using comparisons to children as a way of describing autism, what if actions like stimming and routines are autistic peoples attempt to make sense of a world that so often seems overwhelming on both a sensory and emotional level? If, for the sake of argument, we assume this to be true, then the entire argument that these behaviours are a symptom of a larger problem with autistic people, falls apart. You can’t on the one hand say that autisitc people should adjust better to thier environment, and then castigate them for thier attempts to do just that.

In fact, a 2014 study appeared to point in this direction. It found that both autisitc and neurotypical children,  continue to engage in repetitive behaviors, such as fiddling with objects, as they grow. People with autism just display more of these behaviors, as well as a greater variety. The aphorism that ‘everyone is a little bit autisitc’ is an annoying one, as well as not being true. However, it is fair to say that we can learn a lot from observing behaviours which appear strange and asking what purpose they serve for the individual, rather than making rash judgements. All this informs how we treat those we perceive as ‘different’.

Understanding ‘Stimming’..

As well as playing important functions during development, stimming helps autisitc people in a number of ways. Many of us stim as a way of coping with overwhelming sensations or emotions. It can also serve as a way of communicating those thoughts and feelings. Psychologist Steven Kapp who studies self-stimulatory behaviour has said that while something like scratching yourself can represent anxiousness, hand flapping is usually a sign of happiness. He sees stims as an outlet for “uncontainable emotion”, not as something worth repressing. And that’s the other reason for repetitive behaviors like these – they feel really good.

This is a point highlighted excellently by neurodivergent blogger Julia Bascom on her piece on how uniquely autisitc body movements as well as special interests and routines are all part of the autistic attempt to make meaning out of life, and not something to be pitied.

“Neurotypical people pity autistics. I pity neurotypicals. I pity anyone who cannot feel the way that flapping your hands amplifies everything you feel and thrusts it up into the air. I pity anyone who doesn’t understand how beautiful the multiples of seven are, anyone who doesn’t get chills when a shadow falls just so across a solitaire game spread out on the table. I pity anyone who is so restrained by what is considered acceptable happiness that they will never understand when I say that sometimes being autistic in this world means walking through a crowd of silently miserable people and holding your happiness like a secret or a baby, letting it warm you as your mind runs on the familiar tracks of an obsession and lights your way through the day”

Julia Bascom

I can personally relate to this -obviously, Bascom is speaking in very general terms. I personally don’t regard the multiples of seven as beautiful (although speaking as someone who has to have thier watch with them at all times, the multiples of five have something going for them) and that’s okay. Personally, I pity anyone who can’t have a song speak to them on such a deep and powerful level that listening in public requires restraint. I pity anyone who can’t pour thier soul so much into a subject that they want to find out everything it be that politics, journalism or philosophy. My emotions are somewhat volatile so a small thing can make me sad, but a small thing can make me happy. Given that I’m ‘always on’, something as tiny as a change in my environment, a smell, a taste, a sound, a word from someone, can alter my mood exponentially. Repetitive behaviours are a key part of the way I regulate that.

Despite this, I have read many comments written by neurotypical parents desperately trying to stop their child from stimming in an attempt tp make them ‘normal’. I quite regularly receive strange looks from people on train platforms for my inability to stop pacing up and down as I’m waiting. While I get that autisitc traits are not widely understood within society, I have tried to adjust my own mindset to be less presumptuous when I see anyone doing anything that could be perceived as ‘strange’. This highlights how empathy is key to understanding repetitious and obsessive behaviours. I might not relate to some autistic people love of maths and not all forms of ‘stimming’ come naturally to me, but that dosent mean I don’t understand these as autisitc peoples ability to make sense of the world and shape it to thier needs.

“It takes a million different forms. A boy pacing by himself, flapping and humming and laughing. An “interest” or obsessions that is “age appropriate”—or maybe one that is not. A shake of the fingers in front of the eyes, a monologue, an echoed phrase. All of these things autistic people are supposed to be ashamed of and stop doing? They are how we communicate our joy”

Julia Bascom

An Atypical perspective….

To me this is about how the world sees happiness, and what happiness is in reality. I think we create images of what happiness looks like that we then try and impose on other people with the assumption that everything that makes us happy, must make other people happy. This is despite the fact that all sorts of happiness exist – the type autisitc people are experiencing when they stim, or listen to thier favourite song even if they know all the notes or read about a subject thier passionate about deep into the night is a sort of reserved, private kind that makes everything else seem insignificant in that moment. Rather than resenting these behaviours or treating them as abnormal or not appropriate to ones age, we as a society should see them as an aspect of individuality that the majority might never quite ‘relate to’, but can emphasise with and understand. By taking a more open minded approach to peoples behaviours, we will improve our understanding and respect for people different from us, as a whole.

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