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My Life as a Grown-Up 'Fiddler' With Sensory Processing Disorder

As I sit down I can feel my fingers tingling. The need to fiddle becomes overwhelming often within minutes. When I’m sitting waiting for an appointment, the anxiety levels in my body rise and I start to try to find something to play with. Now these things would be fine if I was 6 or any age of child, however I’m an adult. The looks you get from chewing, or playing with your coat, or tapping your fingers, or my personal favorite of running something over my lips can be unpleasant or even mean. However, I cannot help it.

The need to fiddle, the need to chew or have my arms tickled or scratched are overwhelming to me and have always been there. Even before I knew what it was, my mum used to despair when I came home from school (a place I used to find overwhelming due to bullying and just being too busy with too many people) with another chewed jumper, or elastic bands by the handful, or whatever I could get my hands (or mouth) on. I always found something to keep my hands busy, and in turn my mind off whatever thoughts I didn’t want to intrude into whatever I was doing at the time.

The verb “to fiddle” means to touch or fidget with something in a restless or nervous, way and “fidget” means to make small movements, especially of the hands and feet, through nervousness or impatience. However, to me it isn’t always about being nervous or impatient. Sometimes it’s about stopping extreme stress and / or overload, but not always. Sometimes I will be doing something else at the same time like being on the computer, but I still get the urge, that strong need to fiddle with something. I’ve recently been building my fiddle toy stash and have far too many for a woman of my age (my dad’s sentiments) but each one helps in a different way or fulfills a different need. They don’t even have to be sophisticated, as long as it keeps my hands or mouth or one or more of my senses busy. I have different fiddles for different needs.

This need is where my crafting was born from, too. The need to be doing something in the evening when watching TV became my different crafts. These were all started before I’d heard about sensory processing disorder and before I had acknowledged (or even known about) my sensory needs. Knitting, crochet, cross stitch, embroidery, coloring and many many more crafts were just keeping my fingers busy. If I sit down without anything to do, it only takes a few minutes before my fiddling starts. That, or I pick up one of my many craft projects I’ve got on the go at any time! I simply cannot sit without wanting or needing to do something with my hands or using my senses. Even at the cinema I play with my scarf on my face or fiddle with my fingers or ring splints. I just can’t sit still without fiddling.

I have been looking into whether I “stim” or “fidget” and to say I’ve not got the answer wouldn’t even cover it. It’s very confusing and there are lots of different thoughts on this. Some people say that to “stim” is a need that you have to do that specific movement then and there. Some say fidgeting is a nervous habit and stimming is a release or a calming thing. I don’t know if I “stim” or “fidget” or if they are both different parts of the same thing. I call it fidgeting but there’s evidence it is a stimming behavior; I guess it’s just whatever you want to call it. I use my fidgeting for many different reasons: to calm, to keep my fingers busy, to stop me doing something that is more distracting to others or even harmful (as I think if I didn’t do these things I would be scratching my skin until it bled, or picking my skin, or another more harmful activity).

If you see me or someone else fidgeting or stimming, please don’t ask us to stop. Please don’t judge or poke fun or look disapproving (yes, I’ve seen people do all these to others and have had them done to me too). Please understand it is a need and I (and others) can’t help it.

Photo provided by contributor.

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