Who the Frag Am I?

February 13, 2010

On Stimming

Filed under: Autism — wtfmi @ 12:12 am

One of my major initial doubts regarding my autism self-diagnosis involved the symptom of stimming. Firstly, I was a bit confused about what stimming actually is. And secondly, I had no idea if it was something I did or not.

The DSM-IV seems to be refering to stimming in the autism criteria when it describes “stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms (e.g hand or finger flapping or twisting, or complex whole-body movements)”. Hand flapping sounds like something that would be very obvious (and somehow ominous) and is clearly not something I do, right? (At least not in public, my mind whispers.) And certainly I don’t have any stereotyped and repetitive complex whole-body movements. (Right?)

But finger flapping? Or in my case, finger tapping? Does that count? Or moving from foot to foot? Everybody does this sort of thing, right? Tapping a pencil, or tapping their foot, or twirling their hair in their fingers … so how can I tell if I am ‘legitimately’ stimming?

To answer that question, I turned to YouTube. I was hoping to find images of stimming in action, both so I had some concrete examples and also so I could see more of the context of stimming.

At first I found a lot of videos of what appeared to me to be perfectly normal young children making perfectly normal excited motions. No help there. So I went looking for videos of adults stimming. Ah, that was much better: I found some really helpful videos by autistic adults explaining their various stims, why they stim in different situations, and how they feel about stimming.

Their descriptions of context and emotions helped more than anything else to help me identify my own stims. And yes, it turns out that I do stim.

I do indeed tend to hand-flap around the house when I’m happily excited, although I had never really thought about it at all. (It’s just a thing, ya’know?) I have a highly ritualized game I play with my wedding ring when I’m in a one-to-many talking situation. And that finger tapping I mentioned? Well, I may have over-simplified a bit. I actually have complex finger tapping routines based on prime numbers that I run through when I’m concentrating.

Oh, and I rock quite a bit, too — foot to foot when I am standing, or front to back when I am sitting. Although when sitting I usually keep the amplitude so small that even my husband says he can’t see it. But  I can feel the muscles moving and my balance shifting, which is the part that matters to me. The part that, yes, calms me. In fact, I do a lot of nearly-invisible rhythmic muscle tensing in complex patterns, especially when I’m feeling anxiety.

I absolutely do not feel that I could possibly tell whether someone else is stimming or not. But I am now satisfied that stimming is exactly what I am doing.

Aside #1: One of my favorite videos was by YouTube user gorramdoll, who also blogs at I’M SOMEWHERE ELSE — a blog which I had, quite coincidentally, added to my blog reader earlier that very day. I watched a great many of her videos on AS/ASD, and then went flapping about the house in sheer excitement because so many of the situations and reactions she talked about felt so familiar to me. This flapping was quickly followed by me shouting at my husband, “Come quick! Come see! I’m hand-flapping!” His response: “Yeah? So? You do that all the time.”

(And this is both inappropriate and perhaps somewhat rude, and so I apologize beforehand even though I am going to follow through with my behavior anyway … But man! Is she attractive or what?)

Aside #2: Had this same question come up ten years ago, it would have been a lot harder for me to see in myself. It’s only over the past ten years that I have begun to be comfortable moving my body, publicly or privately. When I was younger, the notion of — for instance — raising an arm above my head for no particular reason while in a grocery store would have sent me into horrified shock. You don’t do that! You just don’t! But my husband, who has ADD, does it constantly. It took me awhile to get used to his freedoms, and a lot longer to start appropriating them for myself.

I do wonder, though, if these attitudes are left over from a forgotten childhood of being told not to stim. They could be — I’ve forgotten an awful lot of my childhood.

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