Everyone stims. Stim is short for sensory stimulation. Those of us on the autistic spectrum tend to have less control over our stims and the need to do so, but every human stims to a lesser or greater extent. Stimming is something that happens with emotion. That emotion can be good or bad, and for neurotypical people, those stims might often be less exaggerated.
I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome later in life than most. When I look back at my younger years, I can see the stims I had and how being told off for “fidgeting” led to more meltdowns, especially as a teenager. As an adult, I’m more aware of my stims, and while I can still find them embarrassing if I catch myself stimming in public, I can also see their importance in helping me process.
There is a hugely positive side to stimming. I love the feeling of rubbing my hands up and down my thighs, the way it can calm me and make me relax. I love when I tap my thighs with my hands or click the lid of a pencil; it helps me focus. Tapping my fingers on my thumbs when walking alone at night in the dark (after work, for example) helps me feel safer. Rubbing my newly shaven head has replaced wrapping my fingers in my hair for a feeling of security. Sometimes just the pleasure of making a random clicking sound with my tongue can make me so intensely happy. My stims largely involve touch, but that clicking sound is the most beautiful thing at times.
As a teenager, one of the stims I picked up was scratching my arms. It went along with cutting myself (one of my forms of self-harm). The scratching came from feeling like I wanted to crawl out of my skin, and looking back, it’s one I developed after a particularly harrowing incident where I was held at knifepoint by another teenager I knew. I’m still not entirely sure why he did it, but it threw me into more chaos than I was already in, and the feeling of the scratching and the marks it made created a form of sensory relief.
The only thing is, it was easy to get carried away and scratch my arms bloody (this is possible even with the shortest of nails). And if anyone asked, it was easy to say my eczema was acting up (which it was through most of my teen years). It’s a stim I’ve since recognized as one to stop, because it often alternated with cutting my legs, and I started to associate them. They both involved a build-up of negative emotion. To be honest, I never thought I would be rid of the scratching. I could see no way out of it. Especially when things built up and my PTSD really kicked in. That was, until I met someone who has helped me stop.
In the past 18 months, I’ve exchanged scratching for rubbing my arms. It’s different from rubbing my thighs, as rubbing my thighs is always through clothing, whereas when I rub my arms, they are bare. I apply a lot of pressure when doing so, and whilst the visual aspect of the stim is not nearly as pleasing, the pressure works just as well and covers a larger area in one go. I’ve scratched once in the past 18 months. Once. And that was after a particularly bad build-up of emotion. How has this person helped me go from regular scratching to once in the past 18 months? Simple. I told this person how I equated the stim with my self-harm, and somehow, the more we talked, the more I felt able to let go of the stim, and I made a promise I would. One that on the grand scale of things, I have failed to uphold once. And considering the stim had been there since my early teen years, which was over half my life, that’s huge progress.
I’m starting to see that when I stim in public, it’s not a bad thing, and that it only tends to be my smaller stims, like the finger tapping, the occasional head rubbing, and tapping my thighs as I walk. I don’t vocally stim in public often.
If people want to give me funny looks, go ahead. I may look a little strange, but maybe next time someone asks you to stop tapping your foot when you’re nervous or clicking your pen, you’ll spare a thought for those of us who literally cannot control it.
A version of this post originally appeared on on The Ever Scribbling Nubbin.
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