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What Your Autistic Child's Stims Can Tell You

I look across the room and see my son stimming, and it’s a beautiful sight. I haven’t seen him stim during the past several days. My 10-year-old, autistic son has been sick with a nasty stomach bug. He had the usual signs of illness: fever, vomit, lethargy. But my son always has another symptom when he’s sick; he stops stimming.

In healthy times, my son is a happy kid who loves life and vibrates with energy. He stims when he is excited or very pleased. His stimming reminds me a little of a cherry cola. Sweet and bubbly. Fizzing. When my son stims, his whole body tenses, his fists clench, his muscles tighten. Like a sealed bottle of cherry cola with so much effervescence trapped inside. Light dancing off floating bubbles. He tenses, he relaxes, tenses again. Fizzing with life.

I remember the very first time I saw my son stim, although I had no idea that’s what it was. He was 17 months old. He had a rainbow-colored spiral tower. You drop a plastic ball in the top, and it falls from one level to the next, rolling down the spiral until it rolls back to you on the floor. He liked watching the ball roll down when we dropped it in the top, but he had never picked up the ball and started it himself. One evening, grasping the brightly colored ball, he leaned forward and plopped it on top of the spiral. His arms shot up in the air and his tiny hands balled up in fists as he watched, wide-eyed, the ball rolling along on the track that he started. That evening, he tensed with every thrilling ball drop he did on his own. I clapped my hands and cheered like the besotted mama I was.

I’m not saying that harmful stims should be ignored. I don’t want any people to hurt themselves. I’m aware that when my son is agitated or overstimulated, his stims become vocal. When he’s anxious, he becomes very withdrawn and silent. If your child is stimming out of distress, help him or her. Not by stopping the stim, but by removing the stressor. If you learn the language, your child’s stims can be communication.

Thank goodness, my son is feeling better now. No fever. No vomit. Back to happy stimming. This is his body, healthy. This is his body, beautiful. Don’t quiet the happy stims.

Getty image by surachetkhamsuk.