How Neurodiversity Keeps This World Spinning Round

Many of my earliest memories are of objects, surfaces. Plush fabrics I rubbed threadbare. The faint luster of a good eraser at the crest of smoothness and friction. The lightly textured expanse of a school desk as I ran my nails over it like skates over scuffed ice. In particular I remember a habit I made of stroking the pearlescent, petal-like skin at my own inner elbow.

I have early memories, too, of therapists’ offices, of well-meaning adults with endless questions. I remember one afternoon in particular. The therapist’s face is a gap, an unfinished puzzle. I sift my little-refined vocabulary for the pieces with which to fill it but I don’t know what she wants, what answers will satisfy her expectant openness.
Finally she asks me, “Are there things you don’t like to touch?” and the answer is at my fingertips, literally and figuratively. I tell her about how I don’t like to handle sheets of notebook paper, how I hate it when the tines of a fork scrape something solid. I tell her of my revulsion for scratching certain things with my fingernails, which incidentally are all stubby from habitually picking at one another. She has never heard me string so many words together at once.

No one explained to me then that I had been diagnosed as autistic. I gathered only that the way my senses worked, the way I discerned good input from bad, was “wrong” somehow. No one would describe the textures, sounds, or smells I relished as beautiful. Beautiful things had form and content; they were music, or art, or a face that could be read, a face that was not a gap. This was long before the little plastic spinners we’re all by now familiar with descended on Amazon in a whirring, rotary-winged swarm. There was no such rainbow of products available to me then which might serve and legitimize my need to stim. My commandeering of objects like erasers and stuffed animals to fill that blank space was seen not as resourceful repurposing, but mindless misuse. It was a sign of something not right with me, as sinister as left-handedness once was.

Nevertheless, my hands stayed busy, picking, stroking, twisting. They busied themselves, intuitively. While my mind focused on a problem or a stream of information, fidgeting gave order to my bodily occupation of a loud and chaotic world. After years of concerned intervention by adults and the spurring of other kids hyper-alert to difference in others, though, I did grow much more discreet in my stimming.

As an adult, the rhetoric of neurodiversity – a perspective that frames variations in neurological condition as normal, valid, and even sometimes beneficial – can feel trite, pacifying. I find today’s typical workplace is often no more hospitable to autistic styles of behavior and processing than the classrooms which were the sites of rebuke and distraction throughout my childhood; even finding work as an autistic person is daunting at best. Public spaces tend to be overwhelming and unwelcoming. It’s hard not to internalize the way the world looks at you, or overlooks you. For the most part, I’ve taken in stride that the world is simply not designed for people like me, and that my own experience of it is marginal.

And yet a number of recent trends bear a paradoxical resemblance to strategic adaptations made by, and for the benefit of, autistic people. Fidget toys, of course, are the most visible example. There are the omnipresent spinners with their three-pronged, alien-sigil shapes, in a range of colors and fabrications reminiscent of keychains, lighters, cheap skateboards, kiosk sunglasses. Embedded in their design is, seemingly, a promise to nebulize the stigma of performing public self-care in a whirl of wacky, Spencer’s Gifts-styled frivolity. There’s also the Antsy Labs-designed Fidget Cube and the myriad imitations it spawned. And there are other, more erratic forms to choose from, a menagerie of twisty, rubbery, metallic, magnetic, gliding, sliding doodads.

Autistic adults and children have long used similar toys, along with chewable silicon shapes and moldables like kinetic sand, putty, and slime, for tactile stimming. But the new wave of products is marketed primarily as a remedy for universal complaints like stress and distractibility.

Speaking of slime, unicorn-hued, glue-based concoctions have inundated Instagram and the U.S.’s collective schoolyards in recent months, much as fidget toys have swept Amazon. Homemade slime may be enjoyed tactilely or visually, and many people find comfort in simply watching slime-mixing videos. In this way the slime trend is continuous with a larger trend of satisfying videos: compilations of machines and skilled craftspeople at work, paint being mixed, things perfectly shaped, perfectly aligned, falling perfectly into place, being cleaned perfectly. The autistic fascination with repetitive or “empty” stimuli has long been used to deny autistic people subjectivity and intelligence, yet it is increasingly evident that the need to sift sensory harmony, a kind of cerebral constellation, from the bombardment of modern life is profoundly and universally human.

Everyone, too, needs ways to deflect that bombardment. A story about a Korean beauty store that uses color-coded shopping baskets with which customers can nonverbally indicate whether they need assistance made the viral rounds in December; the concept was cheered as an introvert’s dream. The story reminded me instantly of the color communication badges used for years at autistic conventions and conferences. One of three cards may be displayed in a name tag holder: a green card indicates the wearer is comfortable being approached for conversation; a yellow card means they only want to talk to people they know; and a red card is a conversational “do not disturb” sign.

Another popular story concerned Ichiran, a ramen chain for solo diners which opened a Brooklyn location in October. Guests are seated in partitioned “flavor concentration booths.” Orders are placed by checklist and passed through a window; verbal communication and even eye contact are unnecessary. This setup enables a kind of grown-up parallel play in which guests are at liberty to take in unadulterated flavor, without the mental friction incurred by more socially interactive dining. An autistic adult’s sensory dream.

I don’t intend to suggest that solo dining and toys that spin are autistic inventions or property. Rather, I mean to point out that innovations which allow autistic people to access, participate in, and enjoy spaces most people take for granted enrich everybody’s experience. It burdens no one to include and accommodate diverse neurotypes. Instead, it promotes the cultivation of varied and abundant outlets for aesthetic and sensory pleasure. It illuminates new niches into which business and design can progress. All traits and affinities, after all, exist on a spectrum. When we are treated as interchangeable moving parts, most of us end up underserved. Neurotypical and autistic people alike generally prefer to inhabit a garden, not a machine.

There’s no shade here for neurotypical people who want to use fidget toys. Do it. They’re fun. But the case of fidget toys is in one way troublesome: they illustrate what happens when neurodiversity as a principle is made invisible or low-priority. In the late bloom of their popularity, kids-these-days scorn is one of the more benign takes on spinners – they’re a vape for your fingers. Compounding the usual grown-up contempt for fads, too, is that whiff of something pathological, something neurotic, that clings to them; they’re a public admission of not being chill, of being the sort of sensitive young person who probably asks for trigger warnings. And without acceptance of the underlying conditions that may make fidget toys useful, people who stim in other, less normalized ways will continue to be mocked and ostracized.

When fidget toys aren’t a trend, they’re a disruption, banned and confiscated in classrooms. Centering neurodiversity in conversations concerning the use of fidget spinners by young students ushers in further controversy; their effectiveness is disputed often without consulting any autistic people, or even the less-anecdotal psychiatric literature on stimming. But that controversy sets something in motion. Educators are moved to consider that stimming is a need, an adaptation, not the aberrant behavior it was when I was in school.

Now that fidgeting is for everybody, stimming no longer appears so alien. If fidget spinners are a disruption, perhaps it is a good and necessary kind, one that will help propel institutions away from working to suppress autism and toward accommodating it – but only if planning and policy are informed by neurodiversity.

At the conclusion of its Kickstarter campaign on May 30, the Gravity weighted blanket had raised $4.7 million. Weighted blankets have been used therapeutically by autistic people for decades, providing a deep pressure that allays anxiety and sensory overload. The Kickstarter page mentions this only passingly, and mostly through vague references to “the medical community.” The subject is, after all, tangential: this iteration of the weighted blanket offers not a specialized solution for a market of marginal individuals, but “the solution for a stressed-out society,” a more effective recharge that will help you take on the rigors of your demanding job, your busy personal life.

The page’s steely, reassuring palette and performance-boosting rhetoric swaddle you in normalcy: this is not a crutch, this is not a special accommodation, this is not a challenge to your preconceptions. This is a product for everyone. And it will help you, one moving component of that great undifferentiated everyone, move a little more smoothly.

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Thinkstock photo by Janifest.

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